These are a few of my favourite things

August 1, 2016

A while ago I wrote about Smooth-Reading and the variety of things I’ve read while doing it. I thought that, today, I’d mention a handful of those books in more detail. These were ones that, for some reason or another, really stood out for me.

Picture of Poisonous Mushrooms

Poisonous Mushrooms of the Genus Amanita

One was a brilliant book called Mushrooms of America, Edible and Poisonous, with absolutely beautiful pictures, like the one to the left. It told you how to tell which ones are poisonous—and how to cook the ones that aren’t. It was the first one that I felt compelled to download, just so I could look at the pictures again. I also have a weakness for recipe books, so it fed another of my guilty pleasures at the same time. (By the way, don’t try eating these ones, they’re definitely not good for you.)

Another pick of the bunch was Jacko and Jumpo Kinkytail (The Funny Monkey Boys), a collection of 31 bedtime stories for young children by Howard R. Garis, with extremely surreal endings. This is one of a series of books by the same author, many of which are now available on Project Gutenberg. One chapter ending goes:

Now next I’m going to tell you about the Kinkytails and the doll’s house—that is, if the alarm clock will stop making figures all over my paper so I can write the story, and if the coffee pot doesn’t step on the rolling pin’s toes.

Well, things must have worked out OK because the next story was, indeed, as advertised. The stories themselves contained a distinctly surreal universe. I think the children to whom these stories were read probably grew up to be imaginative and inventive individuals, or possibly horribly disturbed. It’s a bit of a coin toss as to which.

Then there was the excellent and very entertaining Stanley in Africa. The Wonderful Discoveries and Thrilling Adventures of the Great African Explorer and Other Travelers, Pioneers and Missionaries. Stanley was the man who found Dr. Livingstone, who’d been lost in the African Interior for a while, and greeted him with the immortal words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”. It is, of course, typical of its time (1889) and there are things in it, such as the casual racism, that we cringe at nowadays. It does, however, contain some useful information on what to do if attacked by an ostrich.

Ostrich farming is a large industry in these South African States. […] The birds are innocent and stupid looking, but can attack with great ferocity, and strike very powerfully with their feet. The only safe posture under attack by them is to lie down. They then can only trample on you.

OK. I’ll try and remember that if I encounter any.

An out-and-out winner was the final two volumes of The Paston Letters, a collection of letters, wills and other documents relating to an influential Norfolk family between 1422 and 1509. Most of the letters are either written in haste, or to be delivered in haste, and they tell you not just about the things you get in history books, but also domestic issues and family quarrels. One spat occurs when a daughter of the family, Margery, gets engaged to a man without her family’s knowledge or permission and her mother refuses to have her in the house or to speak to her again—categorising her as a loose woman. The marriage goes ahead, but I suspect they’d planned a more advantageous match for her than one of their employees. She is very noticeably omitted from her mother’s will, in which everyone and their grandmothers are left something. At one point they seem very short of money, their letters are full of requests to each other for cash, and replies saying “don’t ask me, I don’t have any money.” Their wills are extraordinarily detailed—individual bequests include mattresses and specific pieces of bedding. They lived at quite a turbulent period, kings come and go, including Richard III—to this day depicted as a hunched and limping villain who killed his nephews. They seem to have come round, financially, by the time we leave them in 1509, but I have no doubt they continued to have their ups and downs.

Another favourite was a book on copyright law from 1902. I have spent much of my working life in places where copyright and intellectual property are hot topics. So the subject caught my eye and I picked it up to read. Written by a lawyer, for other lawyers, A Treatise upon the Law of Copyright in the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the Crown, and in the United States of America, by a barrister named E.J. MacGillivray, was fascinating reading, and surprisingly accessible to a lay person such as myself. It rounded up the development of the idea of copyright and all the laws that had sought to provide protection to writers and other creative artists, together with clarifications obtained during a huge number of court cases. The author’s aim was simple:

The foundations of this work were laid by my endeavours to understand what is perhaps the most complicated and obscure series of statutes in the statute book. In working from time to time at the Law of Copyright I found great want of a textbook which should be exhaustive of the case law, and at the same time contain a concise and clearly arranged epitome of the statutory provisions. This want I have tried to supply for myself in the present compilation, and it is now published in the hope that it may prove useful to others.

I think he succeeded admirably, and although the law will have changed in the ensuing century, it’s still an excellent summary of the development of copyright protection in the UK, the USA and various places that were part of the British empire.

I can’t recommend Smooth-Reading enough as a fun thing to do with your time. Right now there are dozens of books, ranging across novels for adults and children, history, drama, science, and others.

Ooohh, choices, choices. What shall I pick first?


Popular Science, May 1900

May 1, 2016

Smooth-reading at Distributed Proofreaders can sometimes be a mixed bag, from the fascinating to the dull, even in the same project. When I smooth-read the May 1900 issue of The Popular Science Monthly, I found some of the articles quite interesting. Others were really rather boring, at least to me. For instance, I skim-read the article about blind fish. I really couldn’t make myself interested in how their skin and eyes work. Probably, to someone, this would be information of the utmost importance, but sadly, that article tended to put me to sleep. I found myself dozing off several times while attempting to read it, and eventually I decided to skip the rest of the article. There was another article that didn’t interest me, which was about International Law.

But there were also several articles in this magazine that I found enthralling. The first was about the total eclipse of the sun, May 28, 1900. It was interesting to see the meteorological charts that were drawn up. One chart could be used for predicting cloud cover over the path of the eclipse, and another chart showed what fraction of the surface of the sun would be covered during the time of the eclipse.

cloud cover chart

Chart II.—Probable State of the Sky along the Eclipse Track. Average percentage of cloudiness in May and June.

This article had particular appeal for me because in 1979, my husband and I traveled to Winnipeg, Canada, to witness the total solar eclipse that occurred on February 26. It was an amazing sight, and one I will never forget. In the summer of 2017 there will be another total solar eclipse which crosses the US. It will pass very close to Cairo, Illinois, and we intend to be there to see it.

So, reading about the 1900 eclipse brought back wonderful memories to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s dissertation on the best way to take photos (which has not changed much, except that we now have digital cameras), speculation as to what the solar corona is, and general information about the eclipse.

This issue of Popular Science also includes an article titled “A Hundred Years of Chemistry.” What an interesting article! It speaks of new inventions such as the discovery of how to melt platinum, and how advances in electrical furnaces will change the future. There are many other interesting tidbits in this article, many of which have affected our lives today. For instance, the author wrote:

As we near the end of the century we find one more discovery to note, from a most unexpected quarter—the discovery of new gases in the atmosphere. In 1893 Lord Rayleigh was at work upon new determinations of density, with regard to the more important gases. In the case of nitrogen an anomaly appeared: nitrogen obtained from the atmosphere was found to be very slightly heavier than that prepared from chemical sources, but the difference was so slight that it might almost have been ignored. To Rayleigh, however, such a procedure was inadmissible, and he sought for an explanation of his results. Joining forces with Ramsay, the observed discrepancies were hunted down, and in 1894 the discovery of argon was announced. Ramsay soon found in certain rare minerals another new gas—helium—whose spectral lines had previously been noted in the spectrum of the sun; and still later, working with liquid air, he discovered four more of these strange elements—krypton, xenon, neon, and metargon. By extreme accuracy of measurement this chain of discovery was started, and, as some one has aptly said, it represents the triumph of the third decimal. A noble dissatisfaction with merely approximate data was the motive which initiated the work.

To the chemist these new gases are sorely puzzling. They come from a field which was thought to be exhausted, and cause us to wonder why they were not found before. The reason for the oversight is plain: the gases are devoid of chemical properties, at least none have yet been certainly observed. They are colorless, tasteless, odorless, inert; so far they have been found to be incapable of union with other elements; apart from some doubtful experiments of Berthelot, they form no chemical compounds. Under the periodic law they are difficult to classify; they seem to belong nowhere; they simply exist, unsocial, alone. Only by their density, their spectra, and some physical properties can these intractable new forms of matter be identified.

Finally, there is a short article about winking! Someone did a study trying to figure out how long a typical “wink” lasts. We would call the phenomenon being studied a blink, but still, to think that someone was able to actually time the duration of a blink of an eye (several eyes, actually) in 1900, is quite amazing to me.

Popular Science magazine has been around for a long time, and I encourage you all to check out some of the old editions being made available through Project Gutenberg. They’re fun! Well … mostly.


The life of a book at Distributed Proofreaders

January 1, 2016

This post walks through the life of a book at DP from its beginnings as a physical book to its final form as a beautiful ePub, using Uncle Wiggily’s Auto Sled by Howard Roger Garis, recently posted to Project Gutenberg (eBook number 50405), as a study.

Aside: I didn’t help with this particular book in any way, but rather selected it based on its length, language, beautiful illustrations, and wonderful example of a final ePub.

wiggilycover

Selecting a book

The process begins when a volunteer (usually referred to as a Content Provider) finds a book they want as an eBook. They first have to get a clearance from Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation (PGLAF) that the book is in the public domain, and legal to be reproduced. pgdp.net and Project Gutenberg are both in the United States and thus must adhere to US Copyright law. DP and PG sites hosted in other countries are able to work on and host books that are in the public domain in their respective countries, but aren’t in the public domain in the US.

Figuring out if a book is in the public domain can be oddly complicated — which is why we leave it to the professionals at PGLAF — but a general rule of thumb is that if it was published in the US before 1923, it’s probably in the public domain in the US.

Uncle Wiggily’s is copyright 1922, so just barely under the wire.

Getting the initial text

After receiving clearance, the volunteer either scans the book in or finds the page images from Google BooksThe Internet Archive (usually through their OpenLibrary site), or a slew of other image providers. The images will likely need some level of cleaning to deskew or despeckle them after being scanned in. The images are then run through OCR software to get an initial, raw copy of the text.

Page images of Uncle Wiggily’s were obtained from Google Books.

Note that Google Books and The Internet Archive stop here — eBooks you download from them contain only the text obtained from OCR. PDFs contain the page images with the underlying OCR available for selection and searching. The Internet Archive provides an ePub format, but it’s of the raw OCR text — not a pleasant reading experience.

At DP, this is just the first step in the process of refining and creating an eBook.

Loading the book into DP

Once the page images and text are available, a Project Manager will take up the mantle and guide the book (referred to as a project) through DP. Note that the Project Manager may have acted as Content Provider as well, may have been asked by the Content Provider to manage the book, or may have found the project on one of DP’s internal lists of available scans ready for adoption.

Either way, the Project Manager will create a new project at DP for the book (e.g., Uncle Wiggily’s project page). They’ll fill in a slew of metadata about the project so that proofreaders will be able to find it. This includes information like the name, author, the language the book is written in, and its genre. They will then add the page images and text.

Unleash the proofreaders!

Up until now the process hasn’t been very distributed and may, in fact, have all be done by a single individual. But now that the book has been loaded and is ready for proofreading, many people can work on it at once.

The book starts out in P1, the first proofreading round. Proofreading volunteers can select any book available in this round and start proofreading pages. How they select which project to work on is completely up to them. They might browse the list of all available projects in the round or search for those matching a specific genre and/or language.

Once they find a project and click on ‘Start Proofreading,’ they are presented with an interface that shows the page image and the text. Their job is straightforward: make the text match the image and follow some basic proofreading guidelines. After they make whatever changes they think are necessary to the text, they save the page and can either get a new page from the project or stop proofreading. Other volunteers may be working on the book at the same time, each on a separate page.

After all pages have been proofread, the project is moved into two other proofreading rounds in series: P2 and P3. While any volunteer can proofread books in P1, the subsequent rounds have entrance criteria to ensure each level has ever-increasing proofreading experience and critical eyes.

The time it takes to go through the proofreading rounds can vary from minutes to years depending on the size of the book, the complexity of the pages, the quality of the initial OCR, and most importantly, how many volunteers are interested in working on it!

Uncle Wiggily’s meagre 33 pages soared through all three proofreading rounds in 4.5 hours.

Formatting: a bold move

Proofreading focuses on the page text, not how it’s formatted — that’s for the F1 and F2 formatting rounds. It’s in these rounds that all formatting happens, including things like bold, italics, and underlining, as well as marking poetry and other non-paragraph text for when the book is combined back together. These rounds are also fully distributed and, not surprisingly, there’s a set of formatting guidelines as well.

Uncle Wiggily’s completed both formatting rounds in roughly 12 hours.

Stitching them all back up again

Now that the pages have been proofread and formatted, they wait for a Post-Processor to pick them up and stick them together into their final form. The Project Manager may perform this step, or it may be someone else. The Post-Processor will do a wide range of sanity checks on the text to ensure consistency, merge hyphenated words that break across pages, and many other bits. They’ll create at least a plain-text version of the book for uploading to Project Gutenberg. Nowadays HTML versions are also very common and are further used to make ePubs for eBook readers.

Books like Uncle Wiggily with illustrations require even more care. Unlike page texts that are often scanned in at a relatively low resolution in black and white, illustrations are often in color and always at a higher resolution. Post-Processors will take great care in cropping, color balancing, and doing other image processing on the illustrations before including them in the HTML and ePub versions.

Smoooooooth reading

Often, but not always, Post-Processors will submit the books to what is called the smooth reading round. This is an opportunity for people to read the book as a book, but with a careful eye to anything that looks amiss. Humans are great at noticing when things are not quite right, and what a better way to do it than reading the book! If the reader spies something amiss they can let the Post-Processor know and have it corrected.

Posted to Project Gutenberg

Now that the eBook is completed, it’s posted to Project Gutenberg! Each eBook gets a unique number from Project Gutenberg which is recorded in the DP project record.

Uncle Wiggily’s Auto Sled was given number 50405 and was posted in several different formats:

Every book posted from DP includes a credit line in the text that recognizes the Project Manager and Post-Processor individually and the team at DP as a collective. If the images were sourced from another provider, they are also recognized in the credit line.

Uncle Wiggily’s credit line looks like this:

E-text prepared by David Edwards, Emmy, and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team (http://www.pgdp.net) from page images generously made available by the Google Books Library Project (http://books.google.com)

Preserving history, one page at a time

As you can see, there are many different ways to help create an eBook as a DP volunteer. The best thing about DP is that you can do only the parts you enjoy and only as much of those parts as you enjoy.

Interested in helping a book on its journey? It’s easy to get started as a proofreader — just:

  1. Create an account at DP
  2. After you register, find a project and start proofreading!

Or you can smooth read a book without even creating an account.


A Soldier’s Daughter

September 5, 2015

A Soldier’s Daughter, by G.A. Henty, published in 1906, covercontains three stories. Each one is set in a different continent, but they are all very adventurous. What is more, they all show the bravery of girls — an unusual way to present them at the beginning of the twentieth century, when girls were expected to act like “ladies,” and adventures were considered to be the exclusive province of men.

The first story, “A Soldier’s Daughter,” tells us about Nita, the daughter of a major in a British military camp in Darlinger, India. The following quotes give an idea of what Nita’s father expected from her:

I have quite made up my mind at last, Nita, when I return from this expedition, to pack you off to your uncle in England; you are getting a great deal too old to be knocking about in a barrack-yard, and there are no ladies here who would keep you up to the mark. I know that you are a favourite with all the officers, but that only makes matters worse. You have been a regular tomboy for the last five years, and it is quite time that you were
taught to behave as a young lady.

I like a woman who can play an accompaniment to a good old English, Scotch, or Irish song.…

… there is no more necessary accomplishment on the frontier than for a woman to be able to make her own clothes.

But Nita is a very brave girl. One day, when her father is away with most of the troops, a local tribe attacks the camp, and Nita is captured. Nita not only manages to escape, but after a long, perilous, and adventurous trip, she and an officer — whom she rescued! — finally manage to reach a British camp, where Nita’s father, who thought his daughter was dead, can hold her in his arms again. And of course Nita is proclaimed a heroine!

The second story, which is situated in Germany, is called “How Count Conrad von Waldensturm Took Goldstein.” This is about a young count, who, after a war in which his father was killed, finds out that a rival Baron from a neighbouring castle has attacked Waldensturm and kidnapped the count’s sister Minna, with the purpose of marrying her to the baron’s evil son. With the help of the people of the villages, who are as eager as Count Conrad himself to overthrow the Baron of Goldstein, he is able to free his sister, and, with tricks and an ambush, to kill Baron Goldstein and his son, and make himself master of Castle Goldstein. And all this would not have been possible without the help of Bertha Grun, the daughter of a villager, who was appointed by the baron to be Minna von Waldensturm’s lady-in-waiting.

The last story takes us to Australia, and is called “A Raid by the Blacks.” The Roberts family are living on an outlying farming station in Australia. In those days, when life on a remote farm was extremely hard, people could use all the hands that were available, for every task. But look at the differences in education Effie and her brother received:

The boy, who was now fifteen, had been for the past two years at Sydney, living at his uncle’s and attending school. In another year he was to return to the station. He had gone most reluctantly, but his father had said: “I can quite understand your liking this life, Ned, but I don’t wish you to grow up simply a bush farmer. The colony is increasing fast, and there will be plenty of openings for a young fellow of intelligence and a fair education. I hope that by the time you grow up I shall be able to settle you on a farm like mine, and stock it well for you, if you decide upon following this sort of life, or to start you in any line that you may like to adopt in Sydney. You have had two years of running wild, and if you remain here you will speedily forget what little you have learned; but in any case, three years at school will be a great advantage to you.”

Effie, the daughter, was now fourteen, a strong healthy girl who could ride any horse on the station, had been taught to use both pistol and rifle, and was as bold and fearless as a boy.

Effie had her own tasks on the farm:

Effie went out twice a day with food for the horses, and each time carried a dozen large apples in her apron, which she gave them after they had eaten their corn.

Effie still was a girl of her time, however. When she had to escape the farm in boy’s clothes to ride off and get help from the neighbours, she was a bit embarrassed:

As Effie felt shy about appearing in boy’s clothes, Mrs. Talbot lent her a blouse and skirt.

The reader should note that the stories in A Soldier’s Daughter are not “politically correct” by today’s standards, in terms of how different races are presented. But the book is a creature of its time, and in my opinion, Nita, Bertha and Effie showed that they were real heroines!

This post was contributed by DP volunteer Eevee.


Archaeological Essays, Vol. II

May 7, 2015
Greek medicine vase

Ancient Greek medicine vase

Since archaeology is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, I’ve smooth-read several books about it at DP. When I saw  Archaeological Essays, Vol. II, by Sir James Y. Simpson, show up in the smooth-reading pool, I thought, “Oh, boy! Another fun read!” Well, what I learned was, you can’t trust the title of a book. The first “essay,” which went on and on and on (you get the picture) had nothing to do with archaeology! It was entirely about the incidence of leprosy in Great Britain, Scotland, and parts of France! Now, mind you, the author quotes sources as far back as the 800s, but still! This is not archaeology.

I learned a lot about leprosy. I learned that there are three different kinds of it, that the ancient Greeks knew of it and called it “elephantiasis,” and that the Arabs had a different version of it. It is not the same thing as the swollen legs some people still get when infected by certain parasites. This particular author didn’t seem to think leprosy is very contagious. There was much discussion as to how leprosy arrived in Europe and England and spread to Scotland. There were rather graphic descriptions of what a person with leprosy looks like. I could almost be an expert in the field!

This is part of what makes smooth-reading so much fun. You never know what you’re going to end up with—or what you might learn!


What have you been reading lately?

July 25, 2014

I have a varied, some would say bizarre, reading list. Everything from popular fiction to science (in every branch) to fairy tales to dictionaries and encyclopaedias to old books of all kinds. Some very old books indeed.

Hello, my name’s CJ and I’m a Smooth-Reader.

I found Distributed Proofreaders just over five years ago, and fell in love. I’ve always spotted the misspellings and iffy punctuation in the books I read, and here was my chance to be as nitpicking as I wanted with nobody to tell me I was peculiar. In fact, everyone else was like me. So I couldn’t be that odd after all.

I started like everyone else, checking that the text we produce matches the original book as closely as possible. I graduated to putting formatting codes around text that needed it, and two months after signing up I did my first Smooth-Read. I’ve now read 146 books and I’m looking forward to reading many more.

It’s great to be part of a team effort like this, doing something as worthwhile as preserving all these old texts. I like it that we don’t just work on the classics of literature and the “big” scientific texts that everybody knows about. All those less known books deserve saving too—and can be more interesting because they’ve been forgotten. I love that I can talk about a shared interest to people from the USA to the Philippines, and Australia to Hawaii—as well as nearer to home in the UK. Whatever the time of day or night there’s always someone around. (Don’t tell anyone, but there’s fun stuff too—like word games and jokes.)

What was my first Smooth-Read? It was a set of three plays by Olive Dargan, The Mortal Gods and Other Plays, published in 1912. After reading them, I felt we ought to have let the playwright remain in obscurity. I didn’t like it at all, and this piece of dialogue should explain why. (Phania, allegedly an adult, is speaking to her father and, sadly, this is typical of her conversational style.)

Pha. Lose me? O, never, daddy, never! I’m
Your pipsey, wipsey, umpsey, ownty own!

It didn’t put me off Smooth-Reading, however, and eight days later I sent in comments on something much more enjoyable—The Eighteenth Century in English Caricature  by Selwyn Brinton. During the rest of the year, I read adventures and romances, fairy tales from China and Russia, science fiction, essays, archaeology, healthcare, history, science and cookery.

2010 brought a new list of books—more fiction of all sorts, biographies, political pamplets and books. I think my favourite of the whole year (and competition was fierce) was Jacko and Jumpo Kinkytail (The Funny Monkey Boys), a collection of bedtime stories for young children. Most of it was read while on a train home from work. My journey wasn’t normally that long, but something happened on the way home—something I felt compelled to share with the poor post-processor of the book.

I’m stuck on a train. Someone’s thrown a large tractor tyre on the tracks, we hit it at speed and everything rattled and shook and jumped, we did an emergency stop and then everything went off. The engine’s badly damaged (no fuel, water or oil, no electrics or anything) and we’re sat in a wooded cutting waiting for rescue. They’ve put detonators (yes, detonators!!) on the track ahead of us so that the relief train knows when it’s getting near. Oh—and it’s hot—very hot. I was going to the theatre tonight, having saved up for the ticket, but it starts in an hour, so even if the train arrives now, we can’t get to the town where I live in time for me to get home and back.

I also shared the progress of the rescue effort as I read on. At twenty past seven the rescue train arrived (three hours after we’d set off) and we were transferred to it. At eight o’clock the police declared it a crime scene and we weren’t allowed to leave. Finally, at ten past eight, we were on our way.

Hooray for Smooth-Reading—I would have been as bored as the rest of the passengers after three and a half hours on a stationary train in a heatwave. Instead, I walked into my house that night having done on the train what I would normally do in an evening at home, making the commute part of my leisure time instead of lost hours.

Among the books I read in 2011 were an account of explorers and missionaries in Africa and a compilation of Creole proverbs (two of which were far too indelicate for our sensitive compiler to translate into English). There were also fiction, natural history, political tirades, magazines, and a book on etiquette.

In the following year I had a bit of a break, while I did other things, but at the end of the year I picked up a some fascinating books from the 15th and 16th centuries that brought history to life. The first was a couple of volumes of The Paston Letters, a collection of letters, wills and other documents relating to an influential Norfolk family between 1422 and 1509. It gives an insight into not just the political events of the time, but also domestic concerns and family quarrels that sound very modern.

Image of Friction Clutch Mechanism

Aultman & Taylor Friction Clutch

The second was the first volume of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This overview of Britain as it was in 1587, and the history of how it got there, is informative, entertaining, even chatty. The author wanders off the topic, and then comes back saying “now, where was I again?” You get anecdotes, recipes and gossip in with your history and the description of every aspect of life in Elizabethan England.

2013 brought a new crop, including books about apples, George Washington’s first military campaign, Vasco da Gama’s first voyage and handicrafts for boys. There were works by Erasmus and Galileo, a somewhat gruesome (but informative) book on amputation from 1764 and a variety of novels.

A standout was Farm Engines and How to Run Them: The Young Engineer’s Guide, containing the most amazing technical drawings, of which my favourite is the one to the right. I think it’s the combination of the hugely detailed part and the outline drawing of the surrounding engine that attracts me. It’s worth downloading this book for the pictures alone.

This is why I love Smooth-Reading. There are so many different things to read that, whatever you like, you’re bound to find something you’ll enjoy. So do give it a go. You never know what you’ll discover.

I’m looking forward to what the next year will bring me to read, but in the meantime, I’ll just return to that philosophy book and an adventure novel from 1921.


Thomas Jefferson’s Writings

May 26, 2014

I recently did a partial smooth-read of a book with a weighty title: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private. Volume 1.

Jefferson

I have long been interested in Thomas Jefferson’s writings. Of course, we all know him as the author of the American Declaration of Independence. (Well, most of us know that; I’m not sure this is still taught in public schools in the United States.) So, to have the opportunity to smooth-read Volume One of this work was something I considered a privilege.

Several years ago, I smooth-read some of the diplomatic correspondence that was written during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson’s perspective on the problems American diplomats faced during the Revolution gave me new insight into this time in the history of the U.S. Of course, European countries had grave doubts about supporting the upstart Colonies. The struggles that American representatives endured while trying to convince European countries to support the Colonies’ need to separate from Great Britain are fascinating to read about.

I learned a great deal about the early movement toward the Revolution, and about how the Declaration of Independence arrived in its final form. Most people today think that Thomas Jefferson was in favor of slavery. He was not, and fully intended to free his own slaves. He included a scathing denunciation of slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, including pointing out how Great Britain was heavily engaged in the slave trade. But other statesmen would not allow this denunciation to remain in the final edition of the Declaration.

In this book, some of the correspondence is from the days before T.J. was famous. He was just a young man studying law, and engaged in romances with several different young women. Much of the early correspondence included in this volume has to do with his pursuit of one or two special young women. He teased his fellow students about their romantic problems, and I thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse into the younger T.J.’s life. He must have been an interesting companion!

Jefferson's signature

I wish that I had been able to read the entire volume. I look forward to the time that Volume 2 enters the Smooth-reading Pool, and I fully intend to read it.

My husband owns a 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, written by Dumas Malone. Dr. Malone had access to the original documents that are in the Library of Congress, when he wrote his biography. I’m thrilled that I’m getting to read the same documentation, although in digital form, as was used to write the definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson.


Something to Do in the Meantime

March 5, 2014

While the Distributed Proofreaders website is down, you might like to check out some of the other books we’ve already posted to Project Gutenberg. One you may enjoy is a book I read recently, Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries by CJS Thompson.
Picture of book cover
This thoroughly enjoyable book, published in 1904, begins with an advertisement for the health-giving properties of Eno’s Fruit Salt and ends with an advert from a tea and coffee purveyor. I’m not sure they’d have been too happy at the association with poisons. It’s partly a history of poisons and poisoning and partly a titillating true-crime book, with a foray into criticism of the use of poison in fiction.

  • Enjoy the reviews (all recommended it, except for the Daily Mail, which was a bit sniffy about it)
  • Wonder at the story of poisons throughout human history
  • Thrill as you read the details of actual cases of poisoning
  • Gasp with astonishment at how easy it will be for you to poison someone after reading this book 1
  • Smile at the critique of the unrealistic use of poisons in fiction—even Shakespeare doesn’t escape censure
  • Ponder whether the advertisers knew their products were being advertised in a book about poison
1  Although I don’t think he realised he was writing a poisoner’s manual, and I don’t recommend experimenting. 😉

Interestingly, tobacco is included in the list of poisons, it seems that even in 1904, tobacco was considered harmful by some.

The habitual inhalation of tobacco smoke is undoubtedly harmful, but unless the smoke be intentionally inhaled, very little makes its way into the lungs.

Employed to excess, it enfeebles digestion, produces emaciation and general debility, and is often the beginning of serious nervous disorders.

But on the other hand

Be this as it may, the moderate smoking of tobacco has, in most cases, even beneficial results, and there appears little doubt that it acts as a solace and comfort to the poor as well as the rich. It soothes the restless, calms mental and corporeal inquietude, and produces a condition of repose without a corresponding reaction or after-effect. In adults, especially those liable to mental worry, and all brain workers, its action is often a boon, the only danger being in overstepping the boundary of moderation to excess.

Indeed, at the beginning of the 1600s, King James I is reported as describing smoking as

a custom loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmfull to the brain, dangerous to the lungs; and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoake of the pit that is bottomlesse

When criticising the fictional depiction of poison, the author’s worst strictures are reserved for

the lady novelist is the greatest sinner in this respect, and stranger poisons are evolved from her fertile brain than were ever known to man.

Real life poisoning cases are described and analysed, including various ladies who were accused of murdering their husbands and lovers, a doctor who murdered his brother in law, another who killed his wife and mother in law, the infamous Neill Cream who killed a number of young women, and a celebrated recent American murder case.

In recommending this book, I really can’t put it better than the reviewers did at the time.

The Saturday Review:—”A great deal of curious information concerning the history of poisons and poisonings.”

Illustrated London News:—”The story portions will attract most attention, and the poisoned gloves and rings of old romance supply satisfaction to that sensational instinct which is absent in hardly one of us.”

The Queen:—”Will fascinate most people. Is very readably written. Its only fault is that it is too short.”

Liverpool Courier:—”It is a readable book as well as an able one. The author is an eminent toxicologist and writes pleasantly on the lore connected with the science.”

The Scotsman:—”It is successful and interesting. Full of odd and startling information.”

Aberdeen Free Press:—”Fascinates the majority of his readers. One could wish that Mr. Thompson had written much more.”

Glasgow Citizen:—”A book of the week.”

Glasgow Herald:—”Light and eminently readable.”

My own review? A fascinating, entertaining book that should be on everybody’s ‘must read’ list.


Spinning-Wheel Stories

February 13, 2014

Some time ago I smooth-read Spinning-Wheel Stories, by Louisa May Alcott. What a fun book to read! I enjoy Alcott’s story-telling style, and her ability to inject small morals into stories without being too preachy most of the time. She has occasional lapses, as most authors do, but in general she is able to capture and hold my interest. This particular book is a collection of short stories, recited to amuse children who are visiting their grandmother over the Christmas holidays. The children are kept indoors by severe winter weather, and are slowly going stir-crazy. In an effort to amuse the children, Grandmother and Aunt Elinore tell them stories each evening.

One of my favorite little stories in this book is the incident where the children are romping in the attic, and they discover the old spinning wheel. Almost everything else in the attic is dusty and obviously has not been touched for a long time. But the spinning wheel is clean and there is still flax on the distaff. The children lug the spinning wheel down to where Grandmother is sitting next to the fire, and the girls ask her to teach them how to spin.

Grandma's Story

Grandma’s Story

A thrilling tale ensues, as the wheel goes round and round while Grandmother begins her story. There are wolves, a race, and much excitement in this story! And best of all, it’s a true tale of Grandmother’s life.

If I still had young children, I would love to read this book with them. The stories told here recount events from days long gone by: spinning wheels, big-wheel bicycles, young girls learning to cook, heroic Native Americans, and many others. I think youngsters today would probably enjoy the stories, given an opportunity to read them.


Funny Books

October 31, 2013

Recently I smooth-read two books for Distributed Proofreaders. Both were funny, and I thought others might enjoy them too.

The first book is titled Bizarre, and was written by Lawton Mackall. It’s a collection of humorous essays and observations on life in general. Among other things, there is a description of pockets that made me laugh out loud! Mr. Mackall wrote about advertisers, and embarrassing advertisements that would pop out at him when he was scanning magazines or papers at public newsstands. I think you’ll agree that not much has changed:

“In short, the race of endorsers, produced by the eugenics of advertising, is not subject to the ills that ordinary flesh is heir to. They are the heroes of the present age, deified, like Greek Orion, in the realms of “space”–long-legged, serene, divinely handsome. We, poor mortals, humbly try to imitate them, and lay our wealth at their shrines, as did the Ancients at the altars of their gods. Our Ceres is Aunt Jemima; our Mercury is Phoebe Snow; our Adonis is the Arrow Collar youth; our Venus is the Physical Culture lady; and our Romulus and Remus are the Gold Dust Twins.”

And another essay that made me laugh was the one about how a new wife should learn to take care of her husband. Makall wrote:

“_Feeding._–This is the most important problem a wife has to face. The husband must be made to feel that he is well fed. Otherwise he will not be contented and docile.

During the first week after marriage, when he is still quite infantile and tender to the point of mushiness, he may be fed from the hand or spoon. This method will be found especially satisfactory in cases where the husband shows symptoms of sickly sentimentality.

Throughout the entire first month he will be so demanding of care, so bewildered by the strange new world in which he finds himself, as to be barely able to maintain sanity; in short, he will be so soso that she will have to prepare all the food herself, or at least make him think she does.

But later a change of diet will be found necessary. He will demand scientifically prepared foods. If the change is managed in the right way, it can be accomplished with only slight upset to his disposition. Simply alter the feeding formula so that the total quantity is lessened and the proportion of sugar and burnt materials is increased. It will soon take effect. In a day or two he will say, with a worried look, “Darling, I’m afraid the cooking is too much for you.” And you know what he really means. After that the transition to avowedly professional cooking will be quite painless.”

If you enjoy chuckling at Life’s little oddities, I think you’ll enjoy Mr. Mackall’s book.

The second amusing book is one titled Funny Epitaphs, Collected by Arthur Wentworth Eaton. I have always enjoyed reading about epitaphs. I don’t know why; there’s just something about them that I find interesting and sometimes enjoyable. And I thoroughly enjoyed the epitaphs recorded there. Here’s one:

John Knott, of Sheffield, England:

Here lies a man that was Knott born,
His father was Knott before him,
He lived Knott, and did Knott die,
Yet underneath this stone doth lie.

I also saw a variation of one of my favorites, which reads:

Here lies the body
Of Jonathan Crowder.
He burst while drinking
A Seidlitz powder.
Called from this world
To his heavenly rest,
He should have waited
Till it effervesced!

There are many other amusing epitaphs recorded in this little book, as well as some that are more poignant than funny. I think it’s worth taking a peek at the book.

I hope you enjoy reading these books as much as I did. Laughter is, after all, the best medicine. Or so the proverbial “they” say!


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