Saturday, February 13, 2016

From the PurpleBookCart: Sleuthing out Syllables

History of Illinois in Words of One Syllable by Thomas W. Handford
1888. Belford, Clarke & Co. New York, Chicago, San Francisco

I have known my dear friend and fellow book blogger Sue Conolly over at for nigh on 20 years.  Usually her passion is for splendid, fairly current children's books, while my guilty pleasure tends more towards a kind of "book archaeology"--and the older the book, the better.

Recently, however, our interests crossed over this book.   We were together at a certain utterly mesmerizing little bookshop in Evanston, Illinois when our greedy little eyeballs simultaneously fixed upon this confusing treasure of a tome that (a) was written for children as well as English language learners and (b) was very old.

We wrangled over it a bit, did some "Jan-Ken-Pon" (Japanese "rock paper scissors), and she won the honor of the purchase.

Over at her blog, Sue dug into the subject matter of this book:  the mind-boggling way it is written entirely in syllables-that-don't-always-seem-like-syllables, the vicious discussion of Native Americans, the baffling--and often conflicting--presentation of women.

And then she loaned it to me.

It is a beautiful book, with its brilliantly hued cover, large, precise print and, as it advertises on the title page, the way it is "profusely illustrated".   Handling this book is rather like handling an ancient eggshell--it feels both impossibly strong, yet delicate as well, the paper soft and the stitched binding loosening to the point that individual pages seem to be held in by nothing more than  a stubborn sort of determination.

Yet, as much as I admired this book as a piece of history, and as fascinating as I found the subject matter, my curiosity was piqued by the author, Thomas W. Handford.  I wanted to know more about the man behind the at times oddly  selected bits of Illinois history that rested between the covers of this book.

Frustratingly enough (and as I have run into with other books I have written about here), while Thomas W. Handford was clearly a prolific writer and editor, (4)  I was unable to find any details about the man himself.  None.  Zilch.

Possibly Thomas W. Handford's grave...possibly not.
The most I could find was a cryptic reference to the dates of  his birth and death at the website, which I then plugged into the findagrave website (5), which yielded me a photo of a gravestone that may or may not be the final resting place of Thomas W. Handford.

And so, deprived of any satisfactory epiphanies about author Thomas W. Handford, I turned to the publishers--Belford, Clarke & Co.

Bingo.  I hit the motherlode of intrigue.

Belford, Clarke & Co. had a convoluted history.  Alexander Belford, originally from Canada, started publishing books at the tender age of 13 using a nifty method referred to, by a number of accounts, as "pirating"--printing editions of books without permission from the authors themselves. (1)   This apparently laid the foundation for his future as a publisher.  He was joined in the publishing business by his brother Robert, and later by his brother George.  Eventually they were partnered by James Clarke.  (I admit I am brazenly simplifying this history--there were many nuanced shiftings of power between the Belford brothers and James Clarke before  Alexander Belford and Clarke finally teamed up).

Back cover of History of Illinois--including persistent advertising
Alexander Belford and Clarke moved their business from Toronto to Chicago and then started poking holes in the existing publishing methods of the time. (1)   They printed cheap versions of existing books and magazines, which often resulted in lawsuits.   When established bookstores wouldn't sell their questionable books, they would set up displays of books to be sold on consignment at any store that would accept them, from hardware stores to department stores    They even set up temporary stores to sell backlogs of books--a nifty little method that earned its own name:  "hippodroming"(1), evidently in reference to the constructed racing, entertainment and gambling venues in which fraud played no small part. (6)

Belford and Clarke also came up with various marketing strategies that shot their business into the publishing stratosphere financially.  They reprinted the Encyclopedia Britannica in an American version that they could sell to  great demand at a cheaper price.  They came up with ways to use payment plans, aggressive advertising and subscription services.   They were riding a wave that kept going.  And going.

At one point Alexander Belford even earned the dubious honor of being considered a vile enemy to no lesser a writer than Mark Twain. (3)   Living up to his reputation as a publishing "pirate",  Belford and his Canadian publishing company reprinted Tom Sawyer without regard for American copyright or royalties. (3)  Belford then flooded the American market with 100,000 copies of Tom Sawyer. (3)  Mark Twain--Samuel Clemens then--filed a lawsuit against Belford, Clarke & Co. for violation of his works and "nom de plume".  Clemens lost, adding more fuel to the fire of his animosity against Belford.

Eventually, however, Belford, Clarke & Co. fell off their wave of success, starting with a fire  that wiped out their inventory.   They were  then beaten down further by the financial panic of 1893. (1) By 1900 Belford, Clarke & Co. was divvied up and consigned to history. (1)

Not for the first time I  find myself considering  the fleeting nature of the process of being a writer, and the seemingly (hopefully) permanent nature of the product of being a writer.

It's a dangerous sort of unspoken deal that writers make, isn't it? --balancing their need to tell their stories against the possibility that their stories will someday perhaps be all that is known or left of them.   Who they were and why they wrote will vanish, leaving behind an equally delicate legacy--a book--that is just as fragile and potentially short-lived as a human body.

Unless someone somewhere keeps that book safe.

Which points to the realization that libraries are much more than places where books live--they are places where writers and illustrators never really die.







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