July 4th - A Celebration of Ideas... and Manuscripts

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States, a holiday on which we Americans collectively reflect on a manuscript penned several hundred years ago. The ideas set down on vellum by some of the most brilliant political philosophers of the 18th century (chief among them talented polymath Thomas Jefferson) created the framework for a government that has ensured 241 years (so far) of peace and stability (with these exceptions and this bloody exception). Naturally, it is the ideas and ideals contained within the text that we celebrate as we commemorate the birth of the U.S. But we also meditate on the physical documents which constitute the Charters of Freedom: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all of which are preserved by the National Archives. 

John Trumbull's famous painting The Declaration of Independence

To understand the deep meaning to be found in seeing (and perhaps even touching or owning) original historical manuscripts, on…

A World War II Reading List

My book club recently read The Man Who Broke Into Auschwitz by Denis Avey. Since such a regular part of my my day job is reading and writing about World War II and the Holocaust, I usually shy away from the subject during my free time. But this memoir was a gripping read. Avey's first-hand accounts of fighting in Africa, multiple captivities as a POW (and several daring escapes) definitely gave me a new perspective on the conflict. It also got me thinking about some other books about World War II I have read recently and enjoyed.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler & Stalinby Timothy Snyder: One of the best works I've read about the complex power dynamics between Germany and Russia and their designs on the territories situated between them. Bloodlands illustrates that the German ideology of Lebensraum, by which colonization eventually led to mass murder of Slavic people to the east, was rooted in a much longer history, and helps us better understand how such Na…

Dutch Colonial Architecture on New Paltz's Historic Huguenot Street

Ever since reading The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped Americaby  Russell Shorto, I have been fascinated by the history of the Dutch in America. That fabulous book (read it if you haven't!) focuses on the island of Manhattan, as the title indicates. But while New York City has paved over most vestiges of its Dutch past, just a few hours north of the city, an entire Dutch colonial settlement survives intact.

New Paltz, New York's Huguenot Street is one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements in the United States. First occupied by American Indians, in 1678 French protestant John Calvin, purchased the land now referred to as Huguenot Street after fear of persecution in France led them to flee to first Germany and then, in the 1660s and 1670s, to the religiously tolerant Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.

On a plot of land purchased from Esopus Indians, the Huguenot pioneers built a community which inclu…

Bookseller profile: Honey & Wax

A few weeks ago, while shopping at The Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair (a.k.a. the Shadow Show), I came across a relatively new antiquarian bookseller -- Honey & Wax Booksellers -- and was blown away by their carefully curated booth and beautiful catalogue (which has already gotten some buzz, excuse the pun).

Heather O'Donnell founded Honey & Wax Booksellers in 2011, after learning the business at the venerable Bauman Rare Books. Wanting to focus solely on literature, she started Honey & Wax in her Brooklyn dining room and has since carved out a unique niche for herself in the book world. As her website states, "Honey & Wax Booksellers offers great works of literature: rare first printings, beautiful and curious editions, copies with surprising stories of their own. We handle unique books, striking books, books with no downloadable equivalent." 

The name "Honey & Wax" is itself drawn from a nineteenth-century epigram: “…

How the world is celebrating the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen's most enduring novel. And the world is celebrating!

Perhaps most exciting is the BBC's reenactment of the Netherfield Ball.

That's right... the Regency ball in all its historic splendor will be held at Chawton House, Hampshire, the Elizabethan manor house which belonged to Austen's brother and which is now The Centre for the Study of Early English Women's Writing, 1600-1830. The resulting television special, Pride and Prejudice: Having A Ball at Easter, will air on BBC2 this spring.

The blog Austenprose is hosting The Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge 2013 which encourages Austen devotees to read not only the original but also enjoy various prequels, sequels and motion picture versions. And there are fun Jane Austen-themed prizes!

Austen scholar Susannah Fullerton has published a thorough analysis of P&P and its enduring popularity in her Celebrating Pride and P…

Downton Abbey, the Demise of English Country Houses and the Surprising Endurance of the Norman Conquest

With the much anticipated season 3 of Downton Abbey, we see the reemergence of a theme from season 1 -- the precarious existence of English manor houses like Downton Abbey in postwar England, a very complex and interesting chapter in British history.

Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the fictional Downton Abbey
Although the strain of maintaining these grand country houses was already beginning to show prior to World War I, after the war, the ruin of such homes accelerated. The tremendous cost of the war, led to the United Kingdom dramatically raising taxes.

“The question of who should bear the costs of the First World War was a central element in the aftermath of ‘profound disorder and turbulence’ which… formed a ‘critical period in the disciplining of change, in the survival and adaptation of political and economic elites, and in the twentieth-century capitalist order they dominated,” (“How to Pay for the War: State, Society and Taxation in Britain, 1917-24,” English Historical Review, M.…

Sweden's Coffee Ban

I recently quit coffee. And I love coffee. But I quit the bean to ease my migraines (working so far). Around the same time I tore through Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and was struck with the sheer volume of coffee the girl with the dragon tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist and friends drank while seeking revenge and doing investigative journalism. It made me wonder... Do those long Scandinavian nights require insane amounts of coffee? Were all the coffee breaks taken by Lisbeth Salander a mere literary crutch?

 Rooney Mara as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in David Fincher's 2011 film
The answer to these questions can be found in the 18th century when Frederick I, the king of Sweden from 1720 to 1751, banned coffee in his kingdom. Coffee had first arrived in Sweden in the late 17th century, and by 1746 Fred decided he needed to tax the import. He taxed coffee paraphernalia and tea as well.

Fredrick I c. 1730
According theThe World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World…