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Recent acquisitions

Between one paper and the next I’m popping my head up for a brief gloat:

In the alleyway stalls beside the Oudemanhuispoort I found Een Cent Per Emmer (One Cent Per Bucket), a richly illustrated history of the drinking water of Amsterdam. This is local history at its absolute best, with a side order of typography in the many documents shown in photographic reproduction. It’s beautiful.

Similarly spectacular is The Dinosaur Papers, 1676–1906. It’s a collection of reprints of scientific papers about dinosaurs, from such luminaries as Baron Cuvier, Gideon Mantell, Thomas Huxley, Richard Owen, Cope, Marsh and so on. The text is reset and very lightly edited, but the illustrations are original.

Somehow this book sits in the intersection of a whole lot of interests of mine. There’s the dinosaur theme (admittedly I’ve lapsed in recent years, but at age ten or so I was one of those kids, the ones who’ll tell you ‘Brontosaurus’ is actually called ‘Apatosaurus’ and you should know better). There’s the Victorian science and Victorian manners, the presentation of papers to the Royal Society by men such as “Davies Gilbert, Esq. M. P. V. P. R. S. &c. &c. &c.” and “I have the honor to be, Sir, your most obedient Servant,”. And there’s a strange little anecdote in Stephen Jay Gould’s Bully For Brontosaurus, about Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen, that I’ve been wanting to follow up for years.

Gould writes that Owen mistreated Mantell, denied his discoveries and used his influence to make Mantell’s life difficult (Darwin disapproved). Mantell died of an overdose of opium, which he was taking as a painkiller after a carriage accident left him with a permanently damaged spine. And Richard Owen —in the words of Wikipedia, Mantell’s “long-time nemesis”— had a portion of the damaged spine pickled and placed under his curatorship in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. Not that The Dinosaur Papers will shed any light directly on Owen’s bizarre trophy-taking, but it will show at least part of the public exchange between these two. The Gould story and the Wikipedia entry focus of course on the element of the grotesque, but I’m just as interested in how the feud originated in and impacted on their scientific work.

(I found The Dinosaur Papers at the Antiquariaat De Kloof on Kloveniersburgwal. I’ve walked past there pretty much every day since I moved into the houseboat, and never seen that shop open. Once the door was open, but a ‘Closed’ sign was hanging in the space the door would normally occupy, which seemed fairly clear. I couldn’t resist going in this time to check it out, and it’s completely unsurprising that I ended up spending more than I’d planned to. Well worth checking out, I didn’t even make it into the back room.)

And for light reading, when the history gets too heavy, I was given last week Greek: An essential grammar of the modern language. Methinks I smell a hint… Ah well, it’s about time I got started on a second second language anyway. (Apologies to those who expected Spanish; best intentions and all that… I still intend to read Borges in the original, it’ll just take me a bit longer to get around to it. And most grateful thanks, obviously, to the heavy hinter.)