Book reviews

Burton’s footnotes to the Arabian Nights

In his A History of Eternity, Borges rightfully attacked Richard Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights as being sensationalist and emphasizing the savage and brutal (not to mention sensual) nature of the Orient to pander to his thrill-seeking British audience.

One of the great virtues of Burton’s text, however, is the wealth of footnotes he supplies. Many are very witty, and collected, they are sometimes more interesting than the original text itself.

A case in point, this footnote on the colloquial word for “police”: “Arab. Al-Zalamah lit. = tyrants, oppressors, applied to the police and generally to employés of Government. It is a word which tells a history”. It seems little has changed since…

From These Ashes

The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown

NESFA (New England SF Association), ISBN: 1886778183 PublisherBuy online

coverFredric Brown is arguably the finest writer of science-fiction short stories ever, just as Jorge Luis Borges is the master of the metaphysical fantastic stories.

Curiously, his SF work is more easily available abroad, notably the French translations by Denoël, than in his native US, and most of his books still in print are his mystery novels. This is why I applaud the NESFA’s decision to collect and reprint all the short stories.

Many of these are masterpieces of the genre, with surprising endings that pack a wallop. If you like the TV series “The Twilight Zone”, you know what I mean. Many of them are technically not SF, like the bawdy “The ring of Hans Carvel” in which a medieval man sells his soul for a way to keep his young wife faithful, but they are all extremely enjoyable.

Born Free and Equal

For fans of Ansel Adams, the Library of Congress has an online exhibit based on his book “Born Free and Equal”. This book is a series of photographs taken at the Manzanar camp in California where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II.

A book version has been reprinted.

Update (2002-09-16): This article in The Atlantic sheds some light on the background for the original exhibition.

The Thames and Hudson Manual of typography

Ruari McLean

Thames and Hudson, ISBN: 0500680221  Publisher

coverThis is a curious book, part tutorial, part cookbook, part personal war stories, including the author’s pet tools and techniques.  It was obviously designed before computers were commonplace and many sections dealing with hot metal type or phototypesetting are completely obsolete nowadays.

The beginning has a decent introduction to the history of typography and typefaces.

The middle part concerns itself with working around the constraints of metal or copyediting before word processing systems became commonplace. If nothing else, it should give us a renewed appreciation of how much tedious labor computers save us, such as not having to count characters to find out how many pages will be required.

The final part on layout for stationery, books and magazines is pretty good, but not very systematic, and carries the same war story flavor as the section on recommended tools.

All in all, this book has some interesting information, but I would not recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to produce beautiful documents out of his desktop publishing setup. Robin Williams’s “The PC is not a typewriter”, Robert Bringhurst’s “The Elements of Typographical Style” or even Donald Knuth’s books on computers and typography are better choices in this respect.

Manual of Photography, Photographic and digital imaging, 9th edition

Ralph E Jacobson, Sidney F Ray, Geoffrey G Attridge, Norman R Axford

Focal Press, ISBN: 0240515749,  Publisher, Buy online.

coverThis book is simply wonderful. It is a detailed and comprehensive treatise on the physical, optical, chemical and otherwise scientific theory behind photography (the authors all have a bevy of these wonderfully quaint British learned society titles, in addition to a hefty list of PhDs and graduate degrees). Also distinctive is that the first edition was published in 1890 and thus it spans three centuries!

That said, the coverage of the latest developments like digital photography is impressive, and this is one of the first photography textbooks that have been updated completely for the coming migration to digital, rather  than treating it as an afterthought.

I’ve been looking for a long time for such a book, that explains the theory without patronizing a scientifically literate reader. For instance, the book explains how ISO ratings are defined for film and for electronic sensors, how depth of field is computed, the diffraction limit on sharpness at small apertures and so on. If you are afraid of equations, this is not the book for you.