Communion Of Dreams

Bad medieval book manners.

Oh, this is just completely delightful! Here’s the intro, but you definitely want to go read the whole thing:

Bad medieval book manners. Part 1

Handle with care. Those who have worked with manuscripts in libraries and archives know that the casual relationship between the reader and the printed book stops at the door and a special covenant enters into force once we approach bound parchment (ok, some paper, too, mais j’en passe). ‘Be careful with that’, ‘no flash, please’, ‘don’t open it like that’, ‘use a book-rest, don’t you see you’re hurting it’ are ululations typical of a manuscript room. Needless to say, things were not quite like that in the long Middle Ages. Those manuscripts that have made it through fire and water, deliberate destruction or noxious negligence usually tell us stories of a book culture where the reader and the book were only slowly coming into a friendly bond. Historians have been telling us about book damage arising from negligence, weakness or deliberate fault, but wouldn’t it be great to hear the story from a contemporary who’s lobbied à pleins poumons for the dignity and sacrality of books? This man was Richard de Bury (1287-1345), bishop of Durham, Lord Chancellor, Treasurer and Privy Seal and author of the ‘Philobiblon’, a work that is as fascinating as it has been neglected by modern historians. It is Richard’s manifesto for bibliophilia or the love of books. In it, books take central stage, speaking to us, often through personification, about their ordeals, rewards and achievements. It is, for me, the greatest confession of faith of a bibliophile.

And part 2 is here: Bad medieval book manners. Part 2

Go read and enjoy!

(And yes, I have seen every such type of damage in my conservation practice.)


Jim Downey

Having artists and writers involved in space research and planning? What will they think of next?

A good friend (and fan of Communion of Dreams), passed along an article which made me chuckle. Here’s an excerpt:

Earlier this month, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology assembled a strange gathering: scientists, artists, engineers, and policy-makers, for a workshop designed to imagine how humanity could settle the solar system.

The workshop, held in early February, was titled Homesteading in Space – Inspiring the Nation through Science Fiction, with the express purpose of imagining how manned space efforts can take us to our neighboring planets, not just for a short visit, but for longer durations.

And she added this comment with the link: “The group gathered reminds me a lot of your group from COD.

Ayup. Here’s the relevant passage from Chapter 1:

“I’ve had my expert do a preliminary search through the old NASA archives. I recalled that they had protocols for dealing with such possible situations, and I doubt that anyone else has really thought much about it since the turn of the century.

“In addition to Don’s field team, the preliminary search suggests that another component should be theoretical, a mix of disciplines so that we can get as broad a spectrum of experience and mind-set as possible. Probably we should have an expert in computer technology. A cultural anthropologist. Someone with a background in game theory and communication strategy. An artist or two. We’ll see if a more thorough survey of the NASA material has any good suggestions beyond that. I’ll get to work identifying appropriate individuals.”

And here’s a discussion the chosen artist (Duc Ng) has with the team leader in Chapter 4 about why it’s a good idea to have such non-technical people included in any such group:

“Why do you have an artist on this team?” asked Ng.

“It was a recommended protocol in some of the old NASA guidelines. Artists have a broader perceptual framework, aren’t necessarily limited by ‘logical possibilities’.”

“And what does that mean to you?” Ng leaned across the table. “That I’m just another kind of sensor you can use? Think about it. Those folks at NASA may have had something else in mind.”

Jon paused with his breakfast. “Go on.”

“How about if intuition and creative insight are the guiding principles of the culture that created the artifact? Not just a technological culture with its unique aesthetic sense, but a culture of intuitives who eventually produced sufficient technology to create this thing. A culture just the obverse of our own: largely artistic, with a secondary interest in technology.”

“With only a secondary interest in technology, how could they ever become a space-faring race?”

Ng shrugged. “Who knows how long they had been at it? Their culture may be tens of thousands of years old. Even a very modest rate of technological development could have led them into space eventually.” He paused, sighed. “Look, my point is that we can’t get stuck just looking for a technological explanation. The very reason that artifact was created, sent here or left here, may have had nothing to do with anything scientific or what we would consider logical. It may have had as much as anything to do with the passions, the dreams of the creators.”

Dreams which may take us to the stars.


Jim Downey

With thanks to Jane for the link and observation!


With a little luck, this week I’ll finish up another chapter, one I have been slogging away on for FAR too long. As is plainly clear to anyone who even casually reads this blog, I am not one of those writers who is able to just jump in and dash off page after page of text. I spend days thinking through scenes, how they integrate into the overall story. I’ll spend hours researching stuff which seems just completely tangential to the narrative, because I want everything to actually fit together properly. And I’ll often labor over a couple hundred words of text, trying to capture just the right tone. Whether I accomplish those goals in the end is another matter altogether.

So, for me at least, and for most of the time, writing is just hard work. And as I have noted both here and in personal communications, there are times I fear I have lost my way completely. That I am fooling myself to think that anyone will ever have the slightest interest in plowing through all that text. I’ve felt that way a lot over the last year. Gah.

And then, there are days like yesterday.

When, in about 90 minutes, about 1200 words just flowed out of me and onto the screen. When months of set-up and research all came together. Here’s a bit of that:

The back doors of the van were open, and there, cradled by her mother, was a little girl, about 8 years old. Her rich Indian coloration couldn’t hide the fact that there was already a blueish hue to the skin of her face and hands. With no hesitation, Megan stepped forward, glanced at the mother, and asked “how long has she had this color? The cyanosis?”

“Not long,” she said, in a plain Midwestern American accent. “Maybe 15 minutes.”

Megan looked to Darnell. “They didn’t give us any oxygen. About the only thing we have which might help are A.C.E. inhibitors, and I have no idea where those are in the crates they loaded. And they take too long to really work.”

Darnell studied her face, then turned to Joey. He started to say “I’m not sure …”

“Dar, wait,” said Megan. She looked at the girl, then at her parents. “There may be something else we can do.”

“What?” asked both Darnell and Joey, at the same time.

“Llangelynnin isn’t far,” said Megan.

“We passed through there just half a mile or so back,” said the girl’s mother. “But there’s not much there.”

“Not the town. The old church, up in the hills above. It’s about two kilometers,” replied Megan, looking from face to face. “It was a place of healing. Particularly for healing children.”


And the next bit, which I wrote today? It went back and referenced something I had planted in a scene 11 chapters ago. And which ties in to a critical scene in Communion of Dreams that I wrote about a decade ago. Even better, all of that was intentional — pieces of a much larger puzzle, finally falling into place.

Writing a novel is just brutal hard work. At least it is for me, most of the time.

But I no longer feel like I have lost my way.


Jim Downey

PS: Communion of Dreams will be available for free download this Tuesday, like it is on the first of each month. Likewise Her Final Year.

All alone in the dark of night?


Earth could be unique among 700 quintillion planets in the Universe, study finds

So much of humanity’s astronomical research is based around the notion of finding something like us out there – whether that’s looking for environments that could sustain life, ranking planets in terms of their potential habitability, or comparing distant worlds to our own.

But what if – statistically speaking – the odds are stacked against us finding another planet even remotely like Earth? That’s the thinking behind a new study by an international team of researchers, which has taken what we know about the exoplanets that lie outside our Solar System and fed the data into a computer model.

Their resulting calculations, designed to simulate how galaxies and planets have formed over some 13.8 billion years, produces a “cosmic inventory” of terrestrial planets – and one in which Earth very much looks to be unique.


Perhaps not:

Jon nodded. “Thanks. So what’s the meeting about? What happened?”

“Dr. Jakobs tried to contact you this morning. After hearing her message, I bounced it up to Director Magurshak. They found something on Titan. An artifact.” Seth paused, looked down at his hands, “a nonhuman artifact.”

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot. Seth knew Jon well, didn’t let the silence wait. He looked back up, eyes level and unblinking, “It isn’t a hoax. The artifact is definitely nonhuman, or at least non-contemporary human. Mr. Sidwell found it out near his base. Dr. Bradsen will have as much a report on it as is available, which isn’t much.”


Jim Downey


I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.

It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.


Jim Downey


Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer.  Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith.  Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?

I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles.  While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name.  Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.

Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do.  My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief.  Perhaps.  But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients.  A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary.  I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are.  I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves.  I am a therapist of paper and glue.

These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one.  I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives.  The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor.  I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days.  This news usually comes as a relief.  But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves.  Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.

And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed.  Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel.  It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself.  And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.


A bookbinding mystery.

Been a while since I posted about book conservation. But I thought I would share a little mystery I came upon recently in my work.

First, a simple lesson in bookbinding history, with some terms used in the profession …

When books are sewn together, that sewing goes through a group of sheets which are folded in half. Each folded sheet is called a folio. The group — whether it is a single folio or multiple folios — is called a section (also a signature, a gathering, or a quire).  Most books consist of many different sections, all sewn together in a particular sequence, in order to keep the pages in the correct order.  The number of folios in each section can vary greatly, but it was common for it to be 2 or 4 folios until fairly recently (8 folios per section is common now).

To make it a little easier to keep everything straight and in the right order, printers developed some common practices (or conventions). Numbering the pages seems like an obvious way to do this, but page numbering conventions are surprisingly convoluted and confusing. So they came up with some other tricks for the bookbinders to follow. One was to give each section a letter designation. And another was to have a number combined with that letter designation, so the bookbinder would be able to make sure that they had all the folios for a given section. And just to be extra certain, for a long time printers would place at the very bottom of the printing on each page the start of the word on the *next* page.

Here are three images which show this, from a 1744 book awaiting my attention:

Mystery 1

OK, look at the right-hand page (called recto), at the bottom of the print. See the capital letter E? That shows that this was the start of the new section. And if you look in the same line as that E, you’ll see the word “and”.

Take a look at the next image:

Mystery 2

Note there on the top of the left page (called verso) the print starts with the word “and”. Look at the bottom of that page, and you can see the word “will”, which is the first word on the top of the next page. Got it?

Also, look at the bottom of the recto page, and you’ll see “E2”, meaning that this is the second folio of the section. And there, off to the far right, is the word “which”.

Next image:

Mystery 3

See? The first word on the top of the verso page is “which”, and the page numbering is sequential. At the bottom of that page is the word “faid” (which is actually the word “said”, using an f in place of a long s), and that is the same word on the top of the recto page. The page numbering is again sequential in going to the recto page. But look — there’s no section and folio marking at the bottom of the recto page. That means that this book has sections of just two folios. And if you look at the gutter of the book in this image, you can see the original sewing: the two discolored bits of thread at the top and bottom of the book.

Simple, right? Yup, and this was the way that almost everyone in Europe printed books for about 300 years. (There’s a lot more interesting history connected with this, but for now we’ll just leave it at that.)

OK, let’s take a look at one final image:

Mystery 4

This is from a different book. A bible. One printed sometime around 1644 in German.

Look at the bottom of the text there on the recto, in the lower right of the image. See the section and folio marks? It’s a lower case “e” for the section, and then “iiij.” So this should be the fourth folio of section “e”, right?

But look at the gutter of the book, there on the left hand side of the image. That’s the sewing of the book. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see that there is the original sewing thread, and then brighter sewing thread, where I have added new thread to strengthen these first few sections of the book.

What gives?

I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. This book has three-folio sections, but it is marked as though it should be four folios per section. That’s through the whole book (well, according to my random examination of multiple sections … I haven’t examined every one, since this is a big ol’ bible).

It really threw me at first, because the book came to me with a number of loose pages front and back. Initially I thought that there must be a lot of missing pages (there are a couple), but I started using the other printing conventions of the starting part of a word, and was able to clearly establish that I did indeed have most of the pages. Then I went and checked some of the intact sections of the book, and saw this weird mystery.

Why on earth the printer did this, I can only guess. And that guess is that he did it to make someone think that there were more printed pages in the whole text than there actually are, since a casual examination using the normal printing conventions would suggest that there should be 25% more folios than are really there. Is this a case of some unscrupulous printer ripping off the church or whoever paid for the work? Maybe.

But that’s just a guess.


Jim Downey

Drawing the wrong lesson …

One of the oldest Science Fiction tropes is the development of technology intended to enforce compliance through pain. Two notable examples: the ‘shock collars’ used on members of the Enterprise crew in The Gamesters of Triskelion and the ‘pain givers‘ first depicted in the Babylon 5 episode The Parliament of Dreams.

In both cases, and typically through most of the SF I can think of, this is meant to be a cautionary tale, to show how even a nominally benign or at least non-lethal technology can be perverted. The lesson is that the intentional infliction of pain is itself a bad thing, whether or not it actually causes real corporeal damage.

So, naturally, we have drawn exactly the wrong lesson:

Judge pleads guilty to ordering defendant to be shocked with 50,000 volts

A Maryland judge who ordered a deputy to remotely shock a defendant with a 50,000-volt charge pleaded guilty (PDF) to a misdemeanor civil rights violation in federal court Monday, and he faces a maximum of one year in prison when sentenced later this year.

* * *

The deputy sheriff walked over to where Victim I was standing and pulled a chair away to clear a place for Victim I to fall to the floor. At this point, Victim I stopped speaking. The deputy sheriff then activated the stun-cuff, which administered an electric shock to Victim I for approximately five seconds. The electric shock caused Victim I to fall to the ground and scream in pain. Nalley recessed the proceedings.

* * *

The authorities are increasingly using stun cuffs, which are about the size of a deck of cards, at detention centers and courthouses. They are made by various companies and cost around $1,900 for a device and transmitter. Some models can shock at 80,000 volts.




Jim Downey


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 354 other followers