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?


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.


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