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The Asian at Fifty: First Impressions

AAM loggia

AAM loggia

In 1966 the Asian Art Museum opened as a branch of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. As a condition of the second of two major major gifts of artworks to the city of San Francisco from industrialist and Olympics head Avery Brundage (who can currently be seen portrayed by Jeremy Irons in the movie Race), the museum was separate administratively from the de Young, though that distinction was probably lost on most visitors. Brundage’s collection was extraordinary, and the museum’s holdings remain San Francisco’s most valuable asset—apart from its real estate, and we all know how that has gone.

In 2003 the museum moved to its current home in what was formerly the main branch of the SF public library, repurposed for the new use by Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. Now it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its original opening to the public, and I attended a press preview for the opening of two special exhibitions, China at the Center: Rare Ricci and Verbiest World Maps and Hidden Gold: Mining Its Meaning in Asian Art. A third special exhibition, Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts, opened Feb. 26 and will continue until May 8. In the coming days I plan to review all three of these exhibitions.

So how does the museum look on the occasion of its 50th? I’m happy to report that the answer is: spectacular! There are a couple of walls devoted to museum history in the space between Osher and Hambrecht Galleries (which the museum calls the Vinson Nook) and along the corridor behind its gift shop (which it calls the Hamon Arcade). But the display is tastefully done and not excessive. My fear was that the anniversary displays would be excessively self-referential, as was sometimes the case for past museum celebrations. But someone at the museum must have realized that however interesting such material may be for staff, board, and donors (and those interested in city history), it is not as compelling to most visitors as are actual artworks.

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Friday Roundup : Links for January 15

“Every separation is a link” — Simone Weil

New York Public Library provides hi-res images for free use

"Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, , 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

It’s encouraging to see libraries and museums beginning to make public domain images freely available, increasingly providing high-resolution scans or photos for downloading. Historically, they have guarded images of objects in their collections as a private source of income. Count the New York Public Library among the honorable elite who have made their pd images available to be shared. The library has just put up more than 180,000 images in hi-res free for the downloading. Highlights of the collection include photographs from the Farm Security Administration and Works Progress Administration, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, Walt Whitman papers (1854–1892), and early film shorts.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. "Old Man Depression sent us out on the road ... You don't know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you 'hit' Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. “Old Man Depression sent us out on the road … You don’t know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you ‘hit’ Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

 

The pot in the garden

early 17th c. pipe

early 17th c. pipe

Shakespeare’s garden, that is (click image for link to BBC video).

 

 

Coming soon to an HR department near you?

Partial IBM-Watson Results for Tom's Garden Post

IBM has developed a program called the “The IBM Watson Personality Insights Service” that “uses linguistic analytics to extract a spectrum of cognitive and social characteristics from the text data that a person generates through blogs, tweets, forum posts, and more.”

I don’t know how this thing works, but let’s try it out on some samples of literature. It requires a minimum of 100 words of text. I chose the first page (or a substantial chunk therefrom) of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I also included one of Emily Dickinson’s longer poems, “I cannot live with You.”

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ROI review

River of Ink coverA nice short review of River of Ink in my local paper:

“River of Ink: Literature, History, Art” by Thomas Christensen (Counterpoint Press, $35, 320 pages). The title of Thomas Christensen’s wide-ranging new history of literacy refers to the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258, when the invading hordes killed hundreds of thousands and destroyed the city’s Grand Library, described by the author as “perhaps the greatest repository of historic, scientific and literary documents of its age.” They threw so many books into the Tigris River, he writes, the water ran black with ink for six months. From that incident, Christensen, a Richmond resident who serves as director of publications at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, takes the reader on a world tour of literary landmarks from the invention of movable type in Korea to the “poetry of silence” of Spanish writer José Ángel Valente and the extraordinary tale of Pocahontas in London. The book is beautifully illustrated and Christensen writes with clarity, insight and admiration for these enduring wonders of the world.

50 books designed

I realized recently that I’ve designed at least 50 books (those are the ones I can remember). No wonder I feel as tired as Madelaine Kahn in Blazing Saddles. I made a page documenting this dubious achievement. Click the image below to visit it.

50 books designed by tom christensen

 

Young writers

I quite often get e-mails from young writers interested in book publishing, and I almost always find them always encouraging. A young writer wrote today to say:

I read your article, “How to Get a Book Published”, and I thought I should email you about it. I am a young writer (still in high school) and I have been writing a novel for a little over a year now.

As a teenager, I have been through many phases of finding what exactly is my true passion. All of this of course leads up to what career I shall pursue after I get out of college. And it seems that writing has withstood through it all. Writing and reading have never been a chore for me, and I don’t really understand why my classmates complain about having to write an essay or read a school book. So, recently I have decided I want to pursue a career in the wonderful field of English writing and literature. (Before I had wanted to be a teacher, but I suppose dreams change.) More specifically, I concluded I want to be involved in publishing, whether that is novels or textbooks. You, I have discovered, are very experienced in the profession.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been working on a novel for a while. It is among one of the many projects I have been working on, but is by far the longest. It is that story that has brought me to your website and your article giving tips on how to publish a book. Now, I am not looking into publishing my novel yet. It is not in the slightest bit ready. I don’t think am ready, as a writer. But I suppose I was just thinking and wondering if I ever actually wanted to share my novel with a publishing company, how would I do so and who would I submit it to. I have to say, your article is very informative. It is much more interesting and candid than any of the other websites I visited. It helped me understand the publishing world much more, and I know now that if I want to publish anything ever, I know the steps to follow.

Thank you for writing the article. I will continue to write, read, and try to improve myself as a writer and reader. Your specific words, “the most common cause of failure in writing is dropping out,” cannot be truer. I almost gave up writing because I couldn’t stick with a topic and stick with my story. Fortunately now, I have found the perfect topic for me that I will never give up on.

And here is my response:

I’m happy you are committed to writing. (Maybe your parents read to you when you were little? That seems to make a big difference.) For most people it is not the most lucrative field (there are exceptions) but for those of us who love reading and writing it has many rewards. Maybe your feelings will change as you grow older, but even if you are doing something else you can still pursue your writing interests on the side.
Best of luck, and thanks for writing.

Hello world

“Hello World” used to be the first post of blog beginnings. Hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since I made a post. At one time I was a very active blogger. I posted almost every day to each of five or six sites. That’s not coming back, but I do think it is time to get back to blogging at least now and then. So hello again, world.

My River of Ink” Literature, History, Art has gone to the printer. Official pub date is December. A couple of blurbs came in.

“Truffle-rich, cumin-exotic, from Mutanabbi Street to Céline’s ballets, Gutenberg and the Koreans, a winged sphinx and an iron man and Nur Jahan — oh, and a beturbaned Sadakichi Hartmann — these world-trotting essays make one groovy box of idea-chocolates.”
—C.M. Mayo, author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

“A world tour of cultural histories, a tour de force of eclectic scholarship, a relief map of the journeys of a restless intellect, Thomas Christensen’s River of Ink flows from ancient China to the current Americas with myriad revelations along the way. Christensen is a genial guide to little-known wonders with a wealth of information and a light touch.”
—Stephen Kessler, author of The Tolstoy of the Zulus

Thank you, Catherine and Stephen

Tarting up Jane Austen

Since Jane Austen is so much in the news again these days, it might be worth revisiting this post, which I originally published in 2007:

jane austen enhanced

Is the attractiveness of authors directly related to their promotability in the minds of publishers today? Certainly to judge by the photos on their dust jackets, authors have gotten collectively younger and cuter every year for the past several years. Some publishers deny, however, that they place any importance on author photos. I guess Wordworth Editions is not among them. For a reissue of Austen they have tarted Jane up a bit. The image on the left is the portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra (said to be the only fully authenticated portrait of the author). The image on the right shows the effects of Wordworth’s Photoshop magic: Jane’s bonnet has been removed and replaced with flowing locks, her cheeks have been rouged, and if I’m not mistaken she has had some subtle nips and tucks about the eyes and mouth. Wordworth’s managing editor Helen Traylor explains:

She was not much of a looker. Very, very plain. Jane Austen wasn’t very good looking. She’s the most inspiring, readable author, but to put her on the cover wouldn’t be very inspiring at all. It’s just a bit off-putting.

I know you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover. Sadly people do. If you look more attractive, you just stand out more. Sadly, we do live in a very shallow world and people do judge by appearance.

I guess that about sums it up: “Sadly, we do live in a very shallow world.”

Friday roundup : Links for 2 August

“Every separation is a link.” — Simone Weil

Friday roundup: links for 19 July

An ecclectic mix of links today. Enjoy.

Every separation is a link

Worth revisiting

Duly quoted

  •  “What is the question?” — Gertrude Stein, from Famous Last Words
  • “Wyoming is a place with two escalators; it probably shouldn’t get two senators.” — Nate Cohn

River of Ink: the cover

river of ink cover

This is what I’m thinking of for the cover of my new book, a selection of my essays. We’ll see if my publisher likes it.

I’m happy again to also be the book’s designer/typesetter. The image is a photo I took of the Castel San Giogio, an early castle (ca. 1400) in Mantua, Italy. Mantua is built amid lakes rather like my old home town of Madison, Wisconsin.

For the cover I darkened the water, but not so much that it is just a solid color–it still retains reflections, although that is hard to see in this image.

Friday roundup: Links for 21 June

“Every separation is a link.” — Simone Weil

Duly quoted

  • “Put a fact in every sentence.” — Michael Hastings
  • “All that matters is what you leave on the page.” — Zadie Smith

Web redesign

new-site

 

It’s been a long time since I did a redesign to this creeky old website. Now I’m in the middle of one; in fact, I am uploading core files to the server even as I type this. The home page has been changed to look like the above, and the main pages referenced in the nav at the upper right have been updated as well. There’s still lots that remains to be done, but I’ve been working hard.

The home page on the old site looked like the below. Let me know what you think.

old-site

Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?

“Shamed by you English? You can speak soon and write like a graduate college if me let you help for a day of 15 minutes.”

What is water?

Cool video made from David Foster Wallace commencement address.

Friday roundup: links for April 3

“Every separation is a link.” — Simone Weil

Friday roundup: Links for 26 April

“Every separation is a link” — Simone Weil

Duly Quoted

  • “What happened when a ship carrying red paint collided with a ship carrying blue paint? Both crews were marooned.” — Chris Cobb
  • “Letters do love one another. However, due to their anatomical differences, some letters have a hard time achieving intimacy.” — Ellen Lupton in The Designer Says

Landscape with Yellow Birds: Selected Poems by José Ángel Valente

valente-P4110859

I returned home yesterday to find a case of books waiting for me.

valente-P4110853

This is my translation of poems by José Ángel Valente, considered by many the most significant Spanish poet of the second half of the twentieth century. (Thanks to Eliot Weinberger for the generous blurb.)

valente-P4110856

valente-P4110854

The book was published by Archipelago Press, in a lovely edition with a laid-textured cover. Its elegantly simple design is by Dave Bullen (whose mastery of typography is evident in the treatment of the title on the cover).

valente-P4110858

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