Another one of those weeks…

I did not originally plan to create a series of dispiriting meme-esque images, but sometimes, the art just makes itself.

Seriously, Tony.

Original photo of the Foodman Market in Wilmington, CA taken by John Margolies in 1977, currently available online via the Library of Congress with no known copyright restrictions. The silly text at the top is, of course, my work.

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Weeding and the Fine Art of Slapping Leather

This week’s fun find in the cart of deaccessioned books is the most well-known work by Western (as in cowboys-and-gunfighters) author Eugene Cunningham: Triggernometry:

The cover is surprisingly dull for a book with very lively contents! This is the 5th hardback printing of the 1941 edition; Cunningham first published this book in 1934. Also: BEST TITLE EVER.

Don’t be fooled by that plain and simple cover — this is no dry tome full of vaguely worshipful stories about famous shootists. No, this book is ultimately a very instructional sort of text, written by a man who was acquainted with what it described in practical (as opposed to purely historical) and aesthetic terms.


Eugene Cunningham (1896-1907) was primarily a novelist rather than a historian or essayist, with a day job as an editor and a later foray into screenwriting for television. His life prior to the years when he really hit his stride as a writer of good-guys-slaughter-bad-guys Western adventures was exciting enough to deserve its own novelization — he served in the US Navy during WWI (including the Mexican campaign) and WWII (in the intelligence service), and he worked a mercenary in Central America for a while after WWI. While he did work for a while as a military writer between the wars, it wasn’t where he really did his best work or found his greatest success.

Cunningham presents his sketches of some of the more violent characters of the Old West — John Wesley Hardin, Billy the Kid, “Wild Bill” Hickock, Butch Cassidy, and a rogue’s gallery of other gunmen — as a sort of corrective to the myth-making work of the old dime novels, a clear-headed humanizing and de-fantasizing of their acts and characters. He very clearly understood the “print the legend” problem inherent in telling these stories, and took the time to track down witnesses and contemporary accounts outside of the sensational press. There is, nonetheless, more than a whiff of Old West mythological romance about this book. The foreword, written by Cunningham’s friend and fellow Western novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, both reinforces the presentation of the book as a de-mythologizing effort and simultaneously signed back on to a vision of the gunman as a narrowly honorable and more-or-less orderly user of controlled violence against other violent men. “Some were pretty poor specimens,” Rhodes admits, “but to compare the vilest of them with such monsters as Leopold and Loeb would be infamous” (xii).

This tension between romance and reality finds its most lively expression in the brief final chapter of the book, the one that shares its title. The chapter is described in the table of contents as containing “Random Testimony of the Experts, With Criticism and Comparisons, Hoglegs and Homicides, Diagrams and Disagreements” (viii). The chapter illustrates draw techniques through a combination of critical technical descriptions/illustrations and colorful anecdotes about their uses and their users.

An illustration of the “fanning” technique (417), a “pistol stunt so rarely practised in real life” that none of the author’s gunfighting acquaintances had ever seen it done in a fight, meant primarily for fast and relatively inaccurate sprays of lead in the “general direction” of one’s target (418). Cunningham presents it as a part of an interesting contrast between “the ancient business of gunplay” and target shooting (418).

The consistent thread running through it is an ongoing distinction between the kinds of excellence possible for the life-or-death duellist and those possible for the range shooter or target shooter, exemplified in what I think must be one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole book:

Between amazing speed and hair-line accuracy, naturally the gunman chose to perfect his speed. What use to be the International Pistol Champ’, able to shoot a cigarette out from under the harelipped lady’s mustache, if the other fellow was going to get his hogleg out and smoking and, out of five shots at twelve or fifteen feet, land two bullets in a 22-inch segment of your intimate personality? So the old-time six-slinger practised the draws, perfected hide-outs, thought of nerve-racking tricks.

Eugene Cunningham, Triggernometry (1941), p. 419

“Intimate personality” indeed. *snerk*

We see here, I think, an example of a shift in the target of the romance of the gun — a turn to fetishizing a more brutally practical version of ballistic competence and a related sense of professionalism about the practice of violence. Returning to Rhodes’ foreword, perhaps on this view Leopold and Loeb are all the more monstrous in comparison to Cunningham’s gunmen because of their dilettante approach to violence, their pursuit of the wrong sort of excellence in its practice.

I have no idea how or why this book ended up in a university collection.

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Commonplace Weeds

Once upon a time, children, before the internet put us in the position to drown in information at high speeds and with a great and terrible efficiency, we used to write stuff down. In fact, we often did so (horrors!) by hand, without the benefit of the printing press or the keyboard or a dictation machine. We put instrument to surface and made that scribbly stuff happen. We preserved, shared, and organized information in ways suitable to this slower and more physically personal form, and doing so went hand in hand with how we thought about and interacted with the world.

Consider, for example, the practice of keeping a commonplace book. This is a tool that can be used to serve much the same basic function as a collection of bookmarks in a browser, or a collection of content maintained, annotated, and organized using a reference manager like Zotero or its many cousins. For those of us who find the act of physically writing things down in order to remember them and think about them attractive, a commonplace book can be an occasion for reflection as well as recollection; while it may not be as easily searchable or shareable as a thoughtfully annotated online collection of the same content, it has the advantage, in it slowness, of requiring sustained care and attention in order to work. These ever-growing texts require organization, for example, so that their users can return to information placed in them and make sense of the connections among those items.

The commonplace book indexing scheme developed by philosopher John Locke, which cleverly organized content by appropriately indicative headers indexed by their first letter and first vowel (screenshot of content available at the Internet Archive). For more information about Locke’s system in particular and commonplace books in general, see this lovely article at the Public Domain Review.

Such books, back when they were a more usual occurrence, typically included quotations and notes on material their author-collectors had read or heard; instead of hitting the ol’ Googs for that clever quip, you wrote it down when you encountered it and came back to your book for it later. Contemporary journaling practice isn’t so different from this, really, although a commonplace book doesn’t traditionally take on the diary activities that journaling requires; its original function is for collecting and keeping material to use later (often, per Locke, for rhetorical purposes), rather than writing out one’s thoughts about that information or about oneself.

The commonplace book — uniquely collected and arranged by its author, a work in itself of rhetorical preparation — is also quite different from the published assemblages of famous quotations, anecdotes, or toasts that have often formed the backbone of reference collections for speech preparation (and, lately, personal inspiration). Consider, for example, this little gem that (if I have my way) is probably going to leave my current employer’s collection at the end of our big reference weeding project this summer:

“Gems of brevity, wisdom, and outrageous wit.” A tall order for one little book to fill!

Unlike a commonplace book, in which the content is selected and curated by the book’s creator for that person’s own use and according to that person’s own needs, interests, reading choices, etc., books like this are intended (as the back cover copy tells us with breathless enthusiasm) as a combination “idea mine” and inspirational problem-solving resource. Where exploring one’s own commonplace book is (or can be) a marvelously personal process of introspection, texts like Peter’s Quotations feel a bit like reading someone else’s diary after all of the good bits have been redacted. The often informative and thought-provoking exercise of collecting and organizing material has already been done by someone else, and that someone else (probably prompted by a careful editor) has almost certainly tried to find some scheme for presenting generically appealing material in a generically appealing (and therefore unchallenging) way. This is dumbed-down reflection, sold as a cure-all. “Organized alphabetically by subject” and “cross-referenced by related categories”, Peter’s Quotations leaves little room for the innovation and continuous drawing of connections that grows organically and freely in a commonplace book built along Locke’s recommended lines.

Of course, among the most egregious of Peter’s sins is the book’s complete failure to source its included material in a way that will actually draw its reader to the original authors of those quotations the reader might find provocative or inspiring or useful. It denudes its content of context so completely as to make any “wisdom” present all the emptier. Its thoughtfully clear selection and organization trap the reader in a sort of anodyne garden of well-pruned prose, notwithstanding its empty promise of “outrageous wit.”

I leave the relation between Peter’s Quotations and the Peter Principle (and/or the Dunning-Kruger effect) as an exercise for the reader.

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Rabbit’s Revenge, Redux: In Which Everyone In A Comedian

Every Easter, as devoted readers of this blog know, it is my regular ritual to tell a story. Not the Passover tale, oh no. Not the Resurrection. No, Easter on this blog is the occasion for the retelling of the Rabbit Horror of My Childhood. For the uninitiated, a quick click here will reveal the full, original version of the story. For those averse to clicking, the short version goes like so: When I was a very small child, my parents hid a GIANT inflatable Easter Bunny in a coat closet. When I unexpectedly opened that closet in search of hidden Easter eggs, the horrid thing jumped out and tackled me (it had been wedged in tightly against the coats — Dad was in a hurry). While my parents — who are lovely people, please don’t get me wrong — were naturally sympathetic to my horror and distress at being bum-rushed by a blow-up bunny, it was also undeniably the funniest thing they had seen all year. They reacted accordingly.

Påskekort ca. 1907 / Easter Card ca. 1907
This kid has the right idea. Hold the lapine marauder hostage with weaponized eggs.

Of course, as I’ve been telling this story with some regularity for a few years now, my parents have decided that they need to get in on the act, reclaiming a bit of their own voice in the proceedings and taking a bit of the piss out of my retelling. My mother, for example, has developed a recurring gag using ever-larger greeting cards. Here is this year’s addition to the Ginormous Rabbit Card Collection, again pictured next to a terrier for scale:

Henry is not at all sure that sitting next to that thing is a good idea. Henry is the smartest of my dogs.

Usually, Dad and I laugh a bit about the story (he laughs a bit harder than I do…) and think nothing more of it. He is not usually as…creative, I suppose, about the subtler forms of revenge humor as Mom is. Much of the grandparental energy nowadays, after all, is devoted to my wee nephew, who was the happy recipient of candy, glowy egg things (don’t ask), and gleeful, funny, noticeably little surprises from his elders this morning. Lucky little punk.

It was photos of said nephew, sent out to us all via The Magic of Social Media, that prompted Dad to remember that this year he had actually tried (and failed, thankfully) to find another giant inflatable bunny to send to me. He called me about an hour ago to tell me so, and we laughed and laughed and laughed…



Black-and-white photo — an Easter card, c. 1907 — courtesy of the National Library of Norway’s Flickr stream

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A Tale of Two Lowells

As I was helping out a bit in the archives at work last week, I came across a familiar name in an unfamiliar context: the name of Lowell Mason, which (as it turns out) refers to two very different men who are a part the ongoing development of religious music in the United States.

Lowell Mason

The first Lowell Mason (the one with whom I was originally familiar) was the “father of American church music”, born in 1792 in Massachusetts. I’ve written a little about him here on the blog before — he was both a great composer and arranger of hymn tunes and a great advocate of the kind of formal musical education that ultimately aimed at killing off the informal, communal musical traditions of his time (the sort of music one learned in church-affiliated “singing schools” and song gatherings, often done using shape-note practice).* He was a great believer in music’s moral power, beyond its capacity for eliciting pleasure or intellectual and aesthetic appreciation.

The second Lowell Mason, with whom I was not familiar until this past week, is “Little Lowell” Mason, still-living southern gospel singer with a still-living mission as of this writing. He’s a very old man now (born c. 1937), but he still tours and sings; he was even in my former home town, Storm Lake, in 2014, although I never knew it at the time. While his size (Mr. Mason has dwarfism) was originally presented as a hook in promotional materials (he, like others, was presented as a “singing midget”, a term no longer preferred), it is mostly irrelevant to the deeper content of his musical ministry, which is quite different in tone and style from that of the composer whose name he shares. Where the Father of American Church Music was formal and lofty in his philosophical aspiration, the still-living singer is, in his way, a triumph of that earlier, participant-driven informal religious music tradition. His is a cheerfully popular style, the sort of music that demands tapping feet and clapping hands and singing along.

One wonders what the first Lowell would make of the music of the second; leaving aside the former’s likely disdain for the “sensuous” content of purely popular styles in general, both men nonetheless have in common a certainty that one reaches toward the divine through music, and if their forms of religious joy may look or sound different, they nonetheless seem to be aimed in the same spiritual direction.

*For an interesting look at the first Mason’s approach to music education — and his idea of what music really ought to be for, morally speaking — see Mary Browning Scanlon’s reproduction of a letter he wrote to his son in 1855, as printed in the Music Educators Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Jan., 1942), pp. 24-25+70 .

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Back Into The Weeds

It’s time again for some library collection weeding — the Reference section, this time — and that means it is also time for another round of Weird Stuff I Found In The Collection. Yay!

This week’s theme: Vintage Sexism (It’s Still A Thing)!

Once upon a time in 1949, prolific editor/compiler of books of quotations, toasts and anecdotes Lewis C. Henry (variously published as L.C. Henry, Lewis Copeland, Lewis Copeland Henry, etc.) published a handy little volume called Toasts for All Occasions. It’s a small collection of brief remarks, some attributed to famous authors, some treated as general or common knowledge, and some plainly written by Henry himself. The content is divided by themes or occasions, and it’s the sort of text one imagines old Toastmasters members would keep around as a handy resource. Its tone is all avuncular bonhomie of a sort that might conceivably help a nervous public speaker project confidence.

It is also a snapshot of its time, as one might expect. In the section devoted to toasts appropriate for the Army (a very small selection), for example, we discover the following two bits of sentimental sexism:

The parallel constructions here are clever, and one can easily imagine a man speaking to other men in this way in 1949 and getting enthusiastic responses. What jars reading it now (and perhaps also then, from a woman’s point of view) is the comfortable sense of entitlement underlying both toasts — as if it were women’s duty to get it on with men who serve (ignoring, of course, all of the women who also serve), as if sex and its related comforts were the reward properly owed as “recompense” for service. The transactional romance here rankles (and stands as yet another data point for any ongoing chronicle of how certain contemporary sex and gender norms developed).

There is also a competing antipathy for the relationships that the military romance transaction appears to commend:

This (again, rather clever and nicely written) toast is actually in a section devoted to “Bachelors and Spinsters”, which includes mostly pitying comments on single women of a certain age and the usual parson’s mousetrap/ball and chain gags about marriage as a form of bondage for men (even as it is posed as a necessary fulfillment of women’s nature). Antipathy and desire are presented in constant tension, naturally, as a sort of joke (I am reminded, oddly, of Hannah Gadsby’s discussion of comedy and tension in Nanette…).

Obviously, this is not a revolutionary text. It tidily reinforces norms that have always been in tension with each other. The same relationships that are owed are also scorned, a payment that is also a trap. It’s sort of a horrifying way to think about other people, honestly, and it speaks to what makes some approaches to masculinity so toxic. What’s worst, though, is that it is genuinely a charming little book. Reading it is a bit like spending time with a friendly old reprobate, someone who is both personally rather fun to be around and also intensely off-putting.

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Moving Pictures (2)

As mentioned in the first post in this series, my subconscious has been having a bit of fun with me as I grapple with the maddening process of moving from my old home to a new one. Because the brain-noise hits keep coming, I’m sharing those oddball dreams here.

Dream 2: Monday Avenue

It all began with furniture.

My mother and I were selecting and arranging a sofa and some chairs in my new house’s living room. It was fun, actually, and a little surreal — the sofa unexpectedly turned out to be a convertible sofa-bed, and the randomly appearing chairs coordinated with it no matter what shape or color it took. Then, for no reason at all, the mirror above the fireplace mantel disappeared and was replaced with a sort of hole, inviting (we thought) the purchase and placement of a television.

Obviously, we had to go find one, so we trotted off into the night down Monday Avenue to find a pawn shop.* Also: for some reason, we were not going to the pawn shop to buy a television. We were going because I suddenly needed a part-time job.


The pawn shop we found was small. When we entered the single front room, it was decorated like someone’s idea of an old saloon — red cloth-textured wallpaper and too much mahogany combined into something faintly lurid. The proprietor and another man were talking at the counter, both using an exaggerated Boston Southie dialect. When I told them why I was here, I was given a sort of test to see if I knew what I needed to know to properly value the objects brought in to pawn. I noticed that behind the counter, there was a carefully secured shelf full of books that I instinctively knew to be nearly worthless — damaged middle volumes of unpopular old series, worm-worried journals, assorted artsy novelties, and a middle-grade literature textbook from the 1940s that seemed a bit water-damaged.

Water-damaged page from A Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (1907)

It occurred to me that things might not be as they appeared here.

Just as the proprietor was about to tell me when to start working (apparently, I passed the test), two young men with old guns entered the shop, shouting angrily. My mother and I thought that this would be a good time to leave, so we hustled out into the night on Monday Avenue. On the way back to my house**, we suddenly detoured into a gigantic church full of people (mostly women and children) who seemed to be waiting for something. We waited, too, until we stopped waiting and ran off into the night again.

We never did get that television.

*I have no idea where Monday Avenue is, or why it featured so heavily in my dreaming mind.

**My new house is not on Monday Avenue. I have no idea why my brain kept insisting that it would be, or that it might be nearby. There is no Monday Ave in the town to which I am moving, as far as I know. There is, as it happens, a Monday Ave in or around Mount Airy, NC, which is the town where Andy Griffith grew up (the model for Mayberry). Make of this odd little fact what you will.

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