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You may have heard us say that we were working on a book called Share the Inheritance - Gifts of Intangible and Tangible Wealth - and that we were close to finishing it. I have begun to think that finishing a book is a bit like training a puppy.

Just when you think house training is over, it's not.

That was one reason I didn't post yesterday. (David was with patients and on the road.)

Today we are happy to say that Oxford University has published a book about all the books that were successfully completed. Norman Lebrecht, reviewing The Oxford Companion to the Book in the Wall Street Journal, writes -

At a million words, divided into two volumes, the "Companion" sacrifices lightness for a weight of authority more commonly associated with Gothic cathedrals and sumo wrestlers, but there is no mistaking the levity of spirit that went into its making.

It was "a 15-year project, written by 398 scholars from 27 countries", but unusually the scholars and editors "set out to give as much pleasure as knowledge and to have some fun of their own along the way". . .

A personal memory

Before I went to university, I wandered into Oxford dressed in jeans and shirt and without a penny on me. My wallet had been taken by an enterprising rogue, and I was not sure where I was going to sleep or how I was going to eat. Miraculously, an English lady stopped me on the street, and asked me if I were Czech - she saw in my face a resemblance to Czech pilots who had flown with the RAF in the Second World War. I replied that my mother was Czech and was immediately given a place to sleep and dinner.

The next day, still penniless, I wandered into Blackwell's.


In the basement of the bookstore is the largest room of books in Britain and Europe.
Image: Soham Banerjee / Creative Commons

I spent several happy hours looking at books and reading until I was gently interrupted by a salesperson who told me the shop would be closing for the night and did I wish to purchase any books? Oh, yes, I did, but unfortunately I didn't have any money.

That won't be a problem, he said, and swept me up to the register. He added the sums for three books, packaged them, put them in my arms and asked me to send payment 'when it was convenient'.

I left Blackwell's with a warmth of heart that lingers with me still. I would have walked over coals to pay the bill, and posted payment several weeks later.

Those were the days.

Blackstone saves the press

Wikipedia has a fascinating account of jurist and defender of freedom William Blackstone riding to the rescue of Oxford University Press. In the mid-18th century, the press was run by academic Delegates, as it still is today, but after early successes, rot had set in -

The Press suffered from the absence of any figure comparable to Fell, and its history was marked by ineffectual or fractious individuals such as the Architypographus and antiquary Thomas Hearne, and the flawed project of Baskett's first bible, a gorgeously designed volume strewn with misprints, and known as the Vinegar Bible after a glaring typographical error in St. Luke. Other printing during this period included Richard Allestree's contemplative texts, and Thomas Hanmer's 6-volume edition of Shakespeare, (1743-4). In retrospect, these proved relatively minor triumphs. They were products of a university press that had come to embody increasing muddle, decay, and corrupt practice, and which relied more and more on the leasing of its bible and prayer book work to survive.

The business was rescued by the intervention of a single Delegate, William Blackstone. Disgusted by the chaotic state of the Press, and antagonized by the Vice-Chancellor, George Huddesford, Blackstone subjected the print shop to close scrutiny, but his findings on its confused organization and sly procedures met with only "gloomy and contemptuous silence" from his colleagues, or "at best with a languid indifference." In disgust, Blackstone forced the university to confront its responsibilities by publishing a lengthy letter he had written to Huddesford's successor, Thomas Randolph, in May 1757. Here, Blackstone characterized the Press as an inbred institution that had given up all pretence of serving scholarship, "languishing in a lazy obscurity ... a nest of imposing mechanics." To cure this disgraceful state of affairs, Blackstone called for sweeping reforms which would firmly set out the Delegates' powers and obligations, officially record their deliberations and accounting, and put the print shop on an efficient footing. None the less, Randolph ignored this document, and it was not until Blackstone threatened legal action that changes began. The university had moved to adopt all of Blackstone's reforms by 1760.

James Baxendale tells me that today Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world, and has published more books than all the university presses in America, and Cambridge, combined.

Loss and despair followed by a happy ending. That is the kind of story I like.

Comments (1)

Sounds excellent. Ever read Nicholas Basbane's A Gentle Madness?

Does anyone else find the prospect of reading Kindle, etc. intolerable? The dancing electrons are all right for blogging and superficial exercise of the higher cognitive powers, but sheer folly when digesting St. Augustine, Chesterton, or (fill in blank).

Long live Blackwell's, and may I live to browse there. Cheers

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