Head on over to Art and Object and read all about how NFTs are rocking the art world, plus some pointers on how to collect these digital pieces.
“Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition…. I would pour out my soul’s complaint…— ‘You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly!’”
–Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, 1845
Published on May 1, 1845 in Boston by the Antislavery Office founded by abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself” sold 5,000 copies within four months. By 1847, this first of three autobiographies to be written by the famed escaped slave-turned-orator had gone through nine editions, and by 1860 — a year before the outbreak of the Civil War —30,000 copies were in print, robust statistics for any book in antebellum America, while translations in German and French secured an international readership for its central message — a clarion call against the pestilence of slavery that infected the American South.
“Narrative” spoke eloquently on behalf of the millions of people of African heritage then living in bondage in the United States, illuminating slavery’s horrors and giving voice to the powerless. The slim, 125-page volume chronicling Douglass’s twenty years of enslavement in Maryland is considered a preeminent example of slave narratives, and after 175 years, it shows no signs of irrelevance or obscurity; in fact, a fine press edition has been illustrated by award winning Massachusetts-based artist Barry Moser, who describes himself as “a recovering racist.”
Moser grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, raised as the nephew and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members. After preaching his way through college as a licensed Methodist minister, he settled in Northampton, Massachusetts, where for 50 years he has turned out award-winning art and taught at the surrounding colleges. His illustrations for “Narrative”offer his ruminations on race inequality in the United States and the burden of racism he and many Americans continue to shoulder. “White Europeans have an awful lot to answer for on this continent,” he told me, while Douglass’s flowing autobiography lends itself perfectly to the interpretative work Moser is known for creating.
“‘Narrative’ penetrates over, and over, and over into the mental, physical, and psychological world of growing up a slave,” is how the Yale professor David Blight, whose biography of Douglass was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, said to me in an interview. “He was twenty years a slave, and those twenty years are all represented in that first book. He doesn’t tell us how he escaped until his third autobiography, but this book is Douglass’s great coming out as a writer.”
Before setting his reminiscences down on paper, Douglass shared them in lectures promoting the abolitionist cause throughout the North on a circuit that stretched to Indiana, though many were not receptive to the idea of racial equality; even in Massachusetts, his home state for a decade, he and a colleague were once beaten and thrown from a train for disobeying the rules of segregated seating. But the 26-year-old orator continued to captivate crowds, and during one 18-week period of repose, he wrote his story — a “book of the ages” as Blight calls it.
Over the course of multiple, wide-ranging interviews, Moser told me the idea for this project came after he started seeing a psychiatrist about four years ago, where recurring topics centered on race, religion, and Moser’s older brother, Tommy. Moser chronicled his upbringing in a 2016 memoir, “We Were Brothers,” laying bare a childhood lived among dyed-in-the-wool racists and his strained relationship with Tommy. Though Moser fled the South over fifty years ago, he still wrestles with family ghosts. He said that breathing contemporary meaning into a nearly 200-year-old text had helped him atone, in part, for the sins of his family while confronting uncomfortable truths through his art.
“The idea to do the book grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me loose,” he said, describing his illustrations as “a personal meditation on what I’ve known and what I’ve seen.” And still, “to this day, I refer to myself as a recovering racist,” Moser said, pausing briefly. “I am gripped by white guilt.” He traces his decision to leave the region of his birth to one particular night when he was sixteen years old and members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded near his home in a “Klavalcade” that openly expressed their credo of hate. “My family’s out there on the front porch laughing and talking like the Klansmen were family,” he noted. “That night began my awakening. It haunts me.”
Just as Douglass wrote “Narrative” in less than a year, Moser turned out these images over the course of twelve months, a project as challenging, if not more so, than his illustrated edition of the King James Bible, a four-year endeavor not undertaken by any single artist since Gustave Doré in 1865.
As works of art, the sixty copies printed and bound at the Palace of the Governor’s for Moser’s Pennyroyal Press edition of “Narrative” are exceptional: master craftsman tooled the bindings and marbled the endpapers, while the text and engravings appear on German mold-made paper and sheets imported from a nearly 300-year-old English paper mill. Until the entire series sold out in mid-March 2020, copies were available through the New Mexico Museum for $675 apiece. Ten copies were pressed and left in sheets for artisan book binders to purchase and bind as they see fit.
For inspiration, Moser looked to chain gangs, mass incarceration, lynchings, and his own family; Moser’s grandfather appears stone-faced in one illustration holding a whip while a bloodied woman hangs from a post in the background. Under every image in “Narrative”is a violent ink-black brush stroke — the lash of a whip.
Before and throughout the project, Moser sought guidance and corresponded almost daily with Debra Riffe, a longtime friend and Black printmaker based in Birmingham, Alabama. “She was my confessor,” said Moser. “We talked to each other about race, and I wanted to make damn sure that what I was doing would not be offensive to a Black American without diluting my emotions.”
As one might expect, the very premise of the endeavor — a white artist ruminating on slavery and its aftermath — generates conflicted responses. As to whether a Black artist would have been more appropriate to take on such a task, Riffe said that Moser approached the project with great sensitivity. “I felt he nailed the illustrations. Could someone else have done a better job? If so, why hadn’t they done it? It’s Barry’s point of view. I applaud Barry for trying.”
Theo Tyson, the Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art and Culture at the Boston Athenæum and previously the manager of Spelman College’s Museum of Fine Art, offered her belief that the undertaking “reeks of white privilege,” and that “an African American artist with at least ancestral memory of slavery would have been a better choice to ‘tackle’ this project.”
Moser, for his part, asserts that he is not purporting to speak for Douglass but is sharing his experiences and thoughts alongside the author, through art. Douglass was, as Blight put it, a “magical” writer. “People get captured by ‘Narrative’ because it possesses universal qualities,” Blight said. “This is a young mind and body held captive. A lot of people around the world, in one way or another, are held captive, or believe they are. People read this book in India or Africa or Asia and find their own stories in it.”
Moser hopes his art will speak to those readers, too. “I don’t have a big voice to speak with. But I do have one, and by God I’m going to speak in the language that I speak best, and that’s with images.”
Here’s a quick look at what’s happening in the book world:
Variety reports that digital book subscription service Scribd raised $58 million from venture capital firm Spectrum Equity. Scribd’s website attracts 100 million visitors a month and claims a million subscribers.
Journalists at The Washington Post share their top picks for children’s books in 2019.
A copy of The Art of the Deal with Trump’s signature and the inscription “future president” went for $1500 at auction this week. Alexander Historical Auctions handled the sale of the first edition volume which was accompanied by a typed letter of provenance from the original recipient.
Abby Richter profiled author-illustrator duo Brad Meltzer and Chris Eliopoulos about their books and recently launched series on PBS
A beloved Montclair, NJ bookstore gets compared to Narnia in The New York Times.
Calling all California book collectors: there’s a prize waiting for you, but the deadline is nigh. Read the requirements here.
Bird Count, by Susan Edwards Richmond, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman, Peachtree Publishers; $17.95, ages 4-8. October 2019.
Fall birdwatching is more challenging now that mating season is over–the bright plumage of some birds gives way to more muted tones–but scouting them out is excellent preparation for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. In Susan Edward Richmond’s first children’s book, Bird Count, Ava, whose name is Latin for “like a bird,” is tasked with recording and identifying birds for the wintertime roundup.
A bird can only be counted if at least two people confirm hearing or seeing it, so Ava must pay close attention with her eyes and ears. The singsongy text flies with ease from one page to the next, while young readers can keep abreast of Ava’s bird tally in the page margins. Stephanie Coleman’s deft illustrations of mallards, mergansers, and merlins prove the adage that practice makes perfect: last year she challenged herself to paint one bird a day for 100 days. (See the entire flock here.)
A joyous introduction to birdwatching while also fostering a love of the outdoors, Bird Count will delight fledgling ornithologists as well as wise old owls.
© MAIRA KALMAN, COURTESY OF JULIE SAUL GALLERY
Kalman’s illustration for Stay Up Late.
Author-illustrator Maira Kalman’s bibliography is an impressive one. In addition to creating whimsical covers for the New Yorker, Kalman claims dozens of books to her credit: she debuted in 1985 with the picture book debut, Stay Up Late, and since then titles have included instant classics like Last Stop, Grand Central (1999), Looking at Lincoln (2012), Fireboat (2002), and, even an illustrated picture book called Cake (2018). Each book explores complex topics while maintaining a certain lightheartedness that makes her work accessible to people of all ages, but especially children. In fact, Kalman is adamant that children can handle any subject – slavery, love, even death – as long as it’s done the right way. “There’s always a way to talk to children as long as you are candid and kind,“ Kalman said in an interview with us back in 2014. “You don’t have to scare them beyond their understanding or above their age level.”
Later this month, Atlanta’s High Museum will host an exhibition dedicated to exploring Kalman’s work in a show entitled The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children. This is the fourth collaboration between the High Museum and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, and will span nearly the entirety of Kalman’s career. On loan from various institutions, the 100-piece show features a mix of books, original drawings, manuscripts, and even illustrated correspondence between Kalman and her two-year-old granddaughter.“We are thrilled to partner again with the High to bring children’s picture book art to Atlanta,” said Ellen Keiter, chief curator at The Carle. “Kalman is an astute chronicler of our time as well as someone who makes history accessible.”
“Both captivating and moving, Kalman’s work challenges all of us to rediscover the childlike curiosity that lives deep down inside,” said High director of education Virginia Shearer.
Additionally, Atlanta’s Alliance Theater will present the world premiere of the play “Max Makes a Million,” from June 20-July 21, 2019. Adapted by and directed by Liz Diamond, the play incorporates jazz, poetry, and the visual arts in a tale starring Kalman’s beloved poet puppy character, Max Stravinsky.
The Pursuit of Everything is both a celebration of Kalman’s work and a reaffirmation of the artist’s belief that children deserve honesty in their literature. “It’s absolutely possible to talk about anything with children,” Kalman said. “Because they do understand contradictions, and they do understand sadness and they do understand kindness. There isn’t a child in the world who doesn’t.”
The Pursuit of Everything is on display at the High Museum from June 22 through September 15, 2019.
Special collections libraries, rare booksellers and collectors have embraced Instagram as an ideal platform to virtually share their treasures with the world. Fellow FB&C writer Nate Pedersen wrote the inaugural “rare Books on Instagram” post back in 2016, profiling institutional accounts like those of the British Library (@britishlibrary), the American Antiquarian Society (@americanantiquarian), and others. Follow-up posts looked at librarian accounts and collector feeds. Keeping with that theme, below, in no particular order, are ten noteworthy institutional Instagram accounts that excel at showcasing rare books, manuscripts, and other works on paper.
Don’t have an Instagram account? No problem: All of these accounts are freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
La Bibliothèque nationale France (@labnf)
The Barr Smith Library at the University of Adelaide (@uofaspecialcollections)
The New York Public Library (@nypl)
Musée de Cluny (@museecluny)
The Harry Ransom Center (@ransomcenter)
The Emily Dickinson Museum (@emilydickinson.museum)
The Printing Museum (@theprintingmuseum)
The HuntingtonLibrary (@thehuntingtonlibrary)
The Johns Hopkins University (@jhuspecialcollections)
The Alaska Digital Newspaper Project (@alaskahistoricalnewspapers)
Worlds collide in this trio of exciting new children’s books that explore realms near and far and that are sure to entertain any intrepid adventurers.
A Story Like the Wind, by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Jo Weaver; Eerdmans, $16.00, 80 pages, ages 9 and up.
Anyone who can get through this book without tearing up must have a heart of stone. Award-winning author Gill Lewis’s tale of channeling hope despite facing an uncertain future starts in a rudderless boat bobbing about in a vast ocean carrying refugees away from war. As the situation seems to take a turn for the worse, the passengers begin to talk about the lives they left behind. Young Rami only had time to grab his violin before fleeing and shares a musical story about a white stallion unwilling to bend to an evil overlord. The creature pays a heavy price for its actions, but in turn inspires hope that the struggle is worth the pain. Kate Greenaway award finalist Jo Weaver’s inky-toned illustrations are an evocative and powerful match for the stirring prose. A beautiful and heart-wrenching celebration of love, kindness, and freedom for all.
The King of Nothing, by Guridi, translated from Spanish by Saul Endor; The New York Review of Children’s Books; $16.95, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Originally published in 2013 in Spanish, the English translation of Guridi’s book offers a wry look at different ways of welding power. Here, we meet Mimo the First as he rules over his domain of nothingness–perfectly outlined by dash marks throughout the book–and maintains law and order with unprecedented tenacity. All is right until one day when Mimo is confronted by something and goes on the offensive to eradicate this unwelcome interloper. But this intruder is stubborn, too, and the little king is faced with some unpleasant choices. Will there be war or compromise?
A caveat, please: parents will make this book immensely more enjoyable if they can refrain from political commentary while reading with their children. To be sure, for some adults, the temptation to editorialize does exist here. Instead, delight in this absurd and whimsical examination of the power of the human imagination and leave politics out of it.
The Boy Who Went to Mars, by Simon James; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Award-winning children’s book creator Simon James is back with a story reveling in the joys of active imaginations. Young Stanley is taken by surprise when his mother leaves on an overnight work trip and decides that he, too, must take a trip. Except that Stanley flies off to Mars, and his spaceship returns to Earth carrying a slightly petulant little martian. And this extra-terrestrial doesn’t like to play by earthling rules: no hand washing, no vegetables, and certainly no tooth brushing. An altercation between the martian and a playmate leads to an emotional internal reckoning, leaving the boy/martian to figure out how to make things right. James’s pen and watercolor illustrations capture both the boundless pleasures of imaginative play and the unequivocal love of strong family bonds.
“I am eternally grateful that in the summer of 2000 Bill Reese offered me the opportunity to become an associate at the William Reese Company,” Aretakis said recently. “Over the next fourteen years, I learned from Bill every day. I am proud of the business I built over the past four and a half years [in California], and during that time I learned new skills as I developed a business on my own. I bring these skills, as well as all that I learned from Bill Reese, with me as I return to the Reese Company.”
Aretakis’s official start date was November 1, and he will be manning the Reese booth at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair November 16-18.
“I am excited to be part of the team that will guide the William Reese Company into the future,” Aretakis said, “and continuing on in Bill’s tradition and adapting to the ever-changing environment of antiquarian bookselling.”
Meanwhile, longtime Reese associates Teri Osborn (a FB&C “Bright Young Bookseller” in 2011) and James McBride (a 2017 BYB) recently launched McBride Rare Books, also in New Haven.
“This certainly is an interesting and exciting time for us,” said McBride and Osborn. “Together, we have a combined experience of nearly two decades in rare books, including academia, librarianship, and the trade. With McBride Rare Books, we look forward to continuing our roles as trusted and valuable members of the antiquarian book trade, working closely with our clients and colleagues.” As they did at Reese, the pair plan to continue focusing on Americana and are making their inaugural appearance as freshly minted bookstore owners at the Boston Book, Print, and Ephemera show on November 17. “It’s a consistently great fair, and we’re very much looking forward to exhibiting.” And though McBride and Osborn have chosen to hang their shingle in New Haven for now, they plan to move to New York City in spring 2019.
As for thoughts concerning Aretakis’s move to Reese: “Nick will be a much-needed steady hand at the tiller,” team McBride said, “and we have no doubt that he will carry the business forward in the finest traditions of the firm.”
Many heartfelt congratulations to all in what appears to be a bright new chapter in the field of antiquarian bookselling.