Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Photo of the book "Index, A History of the" being reviewed

I recently read this new book, exploring the history of book indexes over time. This obviously appealed to me as a book historian and bibliophile. But especially so because a couple of decades ago I retrained as a book indexer, qualifying with the Society of Indexers in the UK. I hoped that it would be work I could manage alongside my progressive neurological illness. Sadly after qualifying I found I was already too ill to work reliably as an indexer. But I maintain a great interest in and appreciation for the form.

The book ranges broadly and deeply over what is very much an abstract concept, often difficult to grasp in some of its more theoretical elements. Yet the book explains these well. I particularly enjoyed the early sections on the medieval origins of the index, and the different approaches of the distinctiones (more subject based indexes) and concordances (more like modern web search indexes), and how these ultimately merged in a way to create the modern book index.

As a book historian the discussion of the transition into the printed book era was fascinating, including the establishment of page numbers. I hadn’t known of the practical difficulties early printers faced trying to print these. The book here included helpful illustrations to show how early books were printed and numbered. Indeed the whole book was illustrated well throughout, often showing example indexes from printed books.

Another highlight section for me was the chapter looking at the especially eighteenth century phenomenon of mock book indexes. Despite in my academic historian guise being an eighteenth-century specialist as well as an historian of reading I was quite unaware of these published works. I appreciated how soundly the discussion of the battles conducted to and fro through published indexes was grounded in the world of eighteenth-century publishing.

Moving closer to the present day the book looks at the establishment of indexing societies in the nineteenth century and some of their loftier goals. Surprisingly comparable to a modern Google-type search index, but rather something that was aimed to be built through the medium of traditional subject indexes. Indeed the role of printed book indexes alongside Internet-type search engines in the present day is a topic that the book returned to time and again.

I was most pleased to see the final chapter of the book cover in depth the working methods of modern professional book indexers. So often people assume that this work can now be done automatically by computer. But to produce a good and effective subject index still requires a human book indexer. This was further demonstrated by the book including part of an index to itself that had been generated by automated computer software. The limitations of the resulting index were clear, especially when viewed alongside the also included subject index compiled by a modern professional – and human! – book historian.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable work, and an example of exemplary scholarship. Recommended of course to any bibliophile or book historian, or indeed to anyone who has found a book index helpful in the past and wants to know more. Thank you Dennis Duncan.

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I recently read this book, published by the Genealogical Publishing Company. It’s a compact paperback, 171 pages long.

Titled “Scottish Genealogy: The Basics and Beyond”, its emphasis is very much on the latter aspect, introducing the reader to less commonly used material which can be rich in information for people researching their family trees. The author draws on over fifty years of experience in this field, and is well qualified to write on this topic.

After a brief introduction to the basic Scottish genealogy records (birth, marriage and death certificates, census returns, and old parish registers) it turns to the other less known records. Examples covered (and these are just some of them) include other church records, gravestone inscriptions, statistical accounts, tax records, sasines and land registers, maritime records, burgh records, tracing specific occupations, covenanters, military records, education, poor law records, and emigration. It really is quite an extensive list. In each section there is a brief introduction to the type of record, and then a look at key archival sources (including document references) and published (usually in print, not online) guides and indexes.

The approach of focusing on archival and published material is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it alerts the user to the existence of these records that they may not otherwise know of, and points them towards the original manuscript documents and relevant index material. A weakness because the book sometimes misses newer resources and indexes, particularly online, and because it doesn’t always direct the reader to the most efficient way of searching.

For example, the military records section directs the researcher to paper records at Kew etc but fails to mention the voluminous digitised and indexed versions of many of these records available through subscription services such as FindMyPast and Ancestry. These have revolutionised research into many military ancestors, including identifying records through the new indexes that could not be traced practically before. Likewise the emigration section fails to mention the considerable number of digitised passenger lists, which, particularly for the Victorian period onwards, allow us to newly trace post-1800 migration of ancestors and relatives in a way that was never practical before. Again available through subscription genealogy sites as named above.

The biggest omission for me was that there was no mention of the Scottish Indexes website. This, for many years now, has been providing free access to a growing number of indexes – all directing the user to original manuscript records with reference numbers, usually in the National Records of Scotland. These indexes cover many aspects of Scottish genealogy. As I write this review, the website’s Scotland’s Criminals Database now includes 178,654 entries (including 38,872 prison register entries), its Mental Health Records Index has 117,882 entries, and its Scottish Paternity Index contains 41,178 entries. These indexes cover many parts of Scotland, and facilitate access to manuscript records impractical to search before.

Such omissions are of particular concern because often the family historian, especially if at a distance as they often are, really needs good advice on how to search most efficiently and effectively for ancestors. With the mass of resources available now this is often best done using a mixture of online and offline resources.

Another niggle for me is the testamentary records section. This allows six pages for a very extended list of local testamentary index books (published, in print). Examples of index entries from each commissary court are given, but there is no guidance about the detailed content you might find in an original will or testament document. For example the sort of detailed information you can get on debt and credit, legacies, sometimes lists of personal possessions etc. That would have been a much more helpful use of space. It’s also worth noting that most Scottish genealogists now will search these records using the indexes online at ScotlandsPeople, not through the earlier published print volumes.

Nevertheless, and despite the above concerns, most of the book is extremely useful stuff, and is especially good as a reference source. I particularly enjoyed the sections on maritime records, burgh records and tracing specific occupations. I should also praise the emigration chapter, which draws on the author’s own rich experience in this (reflected by how many of his own useful indexes he refers to). Although as noted, this chapter has some weaknesses in its post-1800 advice. And its depth of coverage of the historical background for emigration feels somewhat indulgent compared to the briefer coverage of other topics elsewhere in the book that could be equally deserving.

A key question is who the book is for? I’ve already commented that I think it’s an excellent reference resource, albeit not totally comprehensive. In terms of practical use the book offers the greatest potential to someone able to conduct research on the spot in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh in the National Records of Scotland. Yet even for Scottish descendants at a distance it provides a good introduction to a large range of lesser used Scottish genealogical sources, and pointers to many published indexes, albeit missing many useful online resources. Although many of the manuscript records the book directs the reader to will still involve research in Scotland, and so it may be necessary for someone at a distance to hire a professional researcher.

So yes while I may have some concerns certainly regarding coverage and applicability, my assessment is generally positive overall. I’m certainly glad that I read this book.

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Recently I read the second in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy of novels. These books provide the reader with a vividly immersive glimpse of Tudor life, a subject that has fascinated me since I was very young. I still have to read the third novel, probably later this year. But to keep me in the Tudor world for a bit longer I turned to another book, this time non-fiction.

Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, was Henry VIII’s uncle, illegitimate half brother of Elizabeth of York. Lord Lisle is mentioned occasionally in the Mantel books, sending a dog to queen Anne Boleyn. But very much as a background character.

Throughout much of the 1530s Lord Lisle was Constable of Calais, then under English control. Later he was suspected of treason, and his correspondence was seized. And this cache of letters, ones written to him and his wife, and copies of letters from them to others, survives to this day. In 1981 a complete transcribed version was published, edited by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. Reading this, even in transcript, would be quite a challenge. More accessible is the abridged version, by the same editor, first published in 1983. I was able to nab a low-cost secondhand copy of the Folio Society edition of this, and have been slowly working through it.

The letters are presented in chronological order, together with explanatory notes about them. Many of the letters concern daily business of governing Calais, but others are letters to/from the royal court in England. The canine gift to Anne Boleyn crops up, as do other letters about gifts of animals.

Read in sequence the letters provide a different view of Tudor court life, seen at a distance and from a somewhat different perspective from usual, let alone as in Hilary Mantel’s popular fiction. For example Thomas Cromwell does not come across well in the letters, frequently acting as an unmovable obstacle to Lord Lisle’s frequent and seemingly reasonable requests for help.

It is also astonishing from a modern perspective to start to grasp the sheer enormity of correspondence and paperwork represented by these letters, many related to the high-level management of one English dependency at the time. It is also somewhat amusing to see the polite and diplomatic – and also extremely verbose – courtly letters nevertheless reveal true feelings and often frustrations, albeit always expressed in the most careful way.

Of course another joy of reading lengthy and detailed correspondence is the insight they give into the personalities involved. Lord Lisle comes across as largely well-meaning, conscientious in his appointed rule, and often frustrated in the difficulties he encounters day to day. His wife Honor is more opaque, but clearly a lady of fashion, trying to keep up her standards, buying things by mail order from London. You do rather feel she feels very cut off where they are.

So a fun set of letters, well presented, in an accessible edited abridged edition. If you want a different glimpse of Tudor life I highly recommend reading these. I believe the book is out of print now, but secondhand copies (both hardback and paperback) are readily available to buy.

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Alice in Wonderland in Border Scots book cover

I’ve long been a fan of Lewis Carroll’s whimsical Alice books, loving them since a very young age. I recently discovered that there are many modern translated versions, published by Dundee-based publisher Evertype. These include a large number of Scots translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, covering different parts of Scotland. And for Borderer me there is even a Border Scots version. I bought a copy, and have been reading it.

The book thankfully retains the original Tenniel illustrations alongside the text in translation. Border Scots has quite a lot of variety within it, from dialect spoken in the Tweeddale area, through Berwickshire, and the somewhat stronger twang of the Hawick and Jedburgh areas. Fortunately for me from Hawick the translator of this edition is a fellow ex Hawick High School pupil, and the language used includes many words and expressions familiar to the area.

Having said that I’m not the strongest Border Scots speaker myself, yet the book has much vocabulary that I recognise. It reads well, though may be a trickier read for those less familiar with the dialect. As for how best to read it, I found reading fast in my head worked well, especially if I made an effort not to dwell too long on individual words, which could break the flow.

Some vocabulary did take me by surprise. Like ‘hink’. But checking in Douglas Scott’s comprehensive and encyclopaedic Hawick Word Book it is a bona fide local word. Other vocabulary was clearly bang on, such as ‘how’ for ‘why’, and ‘teesh’. I was also highly amused by the translator changing the treacle reference at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party to the much more quintessentially Scottish foodstuff tablet.

I greatly enjoyed reading this, and admired the work by the translator Cameron Halfpenny. It’s a lot of Border Scots for a reader to read, but an even bigger task for a translator to produce! I think the book would be enjoyed most by Borderers or those with Border connections. For Scots elsewhere I would perhaps suggest that you might like to try the translated version of Alice for your area.

Best of all I now want to read more Border Scots. Evertype can we please have some more translations?

I am also now about to dive into Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice, that I’ve long wanted to read, and the Border Scots Alice reminded me of. There may be a review forthcoming of that other Alice book in due course.

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