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April 04, 2006


Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

-- At a bookstore I recently saw a table piled with books and sporting a sign saying something about "banned books."

Seems to me this is an annual thing, promoting books that have been banned at some time and place. I see nothing wrong with this sort of promotion even though it never gives me a burning desire to buy any of those books; if I choose to read them, it will be for other reasons.

However, every time I see such displays I have to fight the urge to go to the customer service desk and ask if they have a copy of "Little Black Sambo." My hunch is that some "independent" bookstores in liberal neighborhoods never carry it and would lamely tell me that they would (reluctantly?) special-order a copy. At least it's still in print (I just checked Amazon) so the fuss raised against it a few years back didn't intimidate some publishers.

-- Speaking of books, did you ever notice that not all countries follow the American practice of printing the words on the spine so that they are readable when the book is laying flat with the front cover showing? (Yes, really thick books can have the spine title oriented so that it's readable when the book is upright; here I'm discussing the alternative case of comparatively narrow books.)

The French, for instance, have the spine readable when the back cover is uppermost.

That strikes me as being, well, logical. Yes, sometimes the French manage that.

What's the logic? The American practice is redundant. When the book is laying face-up, one can read the title from the spine and from the front cover. But when the book is face-down, its title is essentially unavailable. Under the French system if a book is face-down, the title can still be read. Voila!

I should add that this cross-national inconsistency makes it harder to scan titles when books are shelved upright and there is a mix of American and French books. I find my head twisting back and forth trying to orient it to read titles from the spines.

-- The 2006 baseball season just got underway. For some reason this brought back a distant memory of the 1962 season, the first for the New York Mets.

I happened to be in the New York area at the time and the news media were overflowing with Met-this and Mets-that every news cycle starting with spring training. The hysteria quickly reached the point where a couple Army buddies of mine from the Pacific Northwest proclaimed themselves Mets fans even before the team had played its first game of the season.

It was all too much!! I've disliked and rooted against the Mets ever since.

Hmm. After this, I probably won't ever be allowed to set foot in New York again. Maybe I should change my name -- I'm waiting for New York readers to suggest Benedict Arnold Blowhard. Or something more damning.



posted by Donald at April 4, 2006


Donald, I'll give you a safe heaven in my Brooklyn apartment against any hordes of Mets' fans (tell me what kinda sport is it, again? The one where they look like toy action figures?)

But you'll have to keep quiet about Bay Ridge accent, capiche?

Posted by: Tatyana on April 4, 2006 06:47 PM

I understand the instant attraction of the Mets. The Dodgers and Giants both skipped town leaving a big Yankees hating baseball fan base that the Mets later filled. The Mets team colors orange and blue represent the Brooklyn Dodgers (blue) and New York Giants (orange).

Posted by: AP on April 4, 2006 07:34 PM

Book spines are also printed the same in Germany. You've already mentioned my objection, which is the bookshelf. I put my German books on my shelves upside down, otherwise I can't read the titles if I'm looking for something. It's logical in one sense, illogical in another. When you pull down a book in a German or French bookstore, you've got to flip it around. I don't care for the extra hassle.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 4, 2006 08:05 PM

Here you can read about the Inquisition's Index Librorum Prohibitorum:

I HAVE noticed that about the spine titles. The Swiss do it that way too--perhaps all of Europe.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 4, 2006 09:20 PM

"Little Black Sambo" has long been cited as an example of racism against blacks, but in fact the story is set in India.

Posted by: Peter on April 4, 2006 09:22 PM

Tim Blair notes a similar hypocrisy here. Borders celebrates "Banned Books Week", but won't be carrying the April/May issue of Free Inquiry; the magazine contains reprints of the Muhammed cartoons, and there've been threats.

They're not dropping it because they're intimidated, mind you. No, no. They just feel it's their duty to preserve public order.

Posted by: Brian on April 4, 2006 10:14 PM

Unless things have changed, I found French books to arbitrarily have spines reading one way or another (although leaning towards the direction you described). My anal-retentive nature is driven nuts ehn I try and shelve the French books in my collection...

Posted by: Tom West on April 5, 2006 06:15 AM

I think your comment about "banned books" is right on the mark. I just wish you'd actually ask for "Little Black Sambo"---and then raise a godawful fuss if they don't. They said they had banned books after all! Wasn't "Huckleberry Finn" banned at one time? For its portrait of Jim?

Posted by: annette on April 5, 2006 11:43 AM

Tatyana -- Do they have checkpoints on the Brooklyn Bridge?

AP -- Yeah, that California bugout was a bitter pill for NYC's National League fans in general not to mention Giants and Bums partisans.

Charlton, Winnifer, Tom -- I'm commenting away from my usual site, so I'll have to take a closer look at my library. I have a few German and Italian books and a lot more in French so I'll check to see to what extent the American pattern is followed. Just to be safe, I ought to look for some UK-sourced books too.

Peter, Annette, Brian -- The "Black Sambo" thing has been on my mind for years because I know the setting is India. (And how many tigers does one find in the African wild? Hmm. Wonder if you can make butter out of lions?) The sensitivity to avoiding mayhem also seems to extend to the reason for cancellations of righty speakers on college campuses. Given that "Sambo" and Huck are still in print gives one hope that at least some of the extreme silliness is over (for a while, anyway).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 5, 2006 01:32 PM

On Verrazzano, Donald, and I live across.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 5, 2006 04:35 PM

Donald, there's a rather good PC version of Little Black Sambo called Little Babaji which is explicitly set in India. The three human characters get renamed Babaji, Mamaji, and Papaji; otherwise they left Helen Bannerman's text alone. Yes, it's PC *and* good.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on April 5, 2006 07:20 PM

I did a quick tally of my French books and found 6 of about 65 had American-style spines. All 6 were from the same publisher (Economica).

My German books were too deeply buried to check quickly, but 5 of 6 Italian books had American-style spines.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 6, 2006 11:00 AM

Looking at the spines of books on my shelves... let's call "American-style" lettering "top-down" and the European alternative "bottom-up" for the way they're read. It looks like the Germans have been most consistent about bottom-up spines. With fairly few exceptions (though there are some), almost all German books I have are bottom-up. German DVDs have bottom-up spines, too -- even German releases of American titles with jacket art and typography identical to the American version often differ in that one detail by having bottom-up spine lettering as opposed to the original American top-down.

The Dutch books I have, even the one from 1909, are all top-down. Same for the Danish and Swedish books.

The French and Italian books can vary, with the preponderance bottom-up, but there are enough top-down to make me wonder if it's a matter of the individual publisher's style.

Maybe a European familiar with the book trade can explain what's going on. My guess is that much of the Continent (Germany, France, and Italy, anyway) was bottom-up until fairly recently, but the international trend is towards top-down and publishers are generally adjusting, with the Germans pretty much the last hold-outs (but starting to crumble just the same).

The only thing is...the oldest German book I own, which is undated but looks like 1905 or before, has a top-down spine!

Posted by: Dwight Decker on April 7, 2006 12:32 AM

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