This is a transcription of The Long Now Foundation and Two New Books — 11 August 2023’
Melissa: Coming up, a WWI story for book lovers set in Oxford.
David: Some memories from a fantastic writer.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: This week, I want to tell you about The Bookbinder by Pip Williams. It’s a follow-up and companion novel to her 2020 hit The Dictionary of Lost Words. That book sold more than 500,00 copies. Stage and TV adaptations are in the works. It tells a story about the Oxford English Dictionary in which a young girl rescues words omitted from the OED by the men creating it.
Melissa: This new novel The Bookbinder is set in 1914, at the Oxford University Press bindery. Our heroine Peggy and her twin sister Maude have been working at the bindery since they were young girls. They sort, fold, and sew folios that will be turned into books. Their bone folders are never far from their hands. Although Peggy is surrounded by books, she’s repeatedly told, ‘Your job, Miss Jones, is to bind the books, not read them.’
Melissa: Poor Peggy! She inherited a deep love of literature from her mother, who’s been dead for three years. Peggy dreams of joining the other girl students at Oxford’s Somerville College, getting an education, and having access to a whole library of books that are right there for the taking. But her life is soon unbalanced by an influx of Belgian refugees, the onset of WWI, and the Spanish flu.
Melissa: In the UK, this novel is called The Bookbinder of Jericho. It was released in July to very positive reviews. The Guardian said it riffs on ‘class, family, trauma, and remembrance. Pip Williams fully inhabits the world of the bindery, and it shows — there’s hardly a page out of place.’ I’m planning a little reading project of both The Dictionary of Lost Words and The Bookbinder. Pip Williams is the author, and both books are available now.
David: We talked about John McPhee in our Scotland episode. He’s the author of ‘The Crofter and the Laird.’ He’s one of the great essayists of our time. He’s particularly well known for taking complex subjects and boiling those down. He’s written 32 books over 7 decades, on everything from oranges to the story of Alaska. He’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize four times, and won it once. And for most of his life, he taught journalism at Princeton. He’s getting on. He’s 92 now. But he has a new book out.
David: It’s called ‘Tabula Rasa, Volume One.’ It is presented as a round-up of bits from articles he never finished. Like a file full of John McPhee outtakes. And why he didn’t finish them. But it feels like you’re sitting in what I imagine is John McPhee’s overstuffed office, just talking about whatever he wants to talk about. Because he’s 92. And he’s John McPhee.
David: There are stories here about living in Spain during World War 2, a tiff with Thornton Wilder, and McPhee’s encounters with Presidents and playwrights and everybody else he’s encountered in 70 years of journalism.
David: The book is well-written but uneven. It wanders around. Chapters are a page or two long, and then we’re onto the next thing. Somehow that feels appropriate. And it’s short, about 200 pages. If you’re interested, pour yourself a nice tea or a bit of something stronger, and enjoy McPhee’s company. This is ‘Tabula Rasa Volume One’ by John McPhee.
David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
David: This Distraction of the Week started because I was doing research for our Amusement Park episode. I was looking into Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. And I noticed that Johnson had done a speech for a foundation called The Long Now. And I got curious.
David: So I put that name The Long Now into Wikipedia. Here’s what I found out. The Long Now Foundation is a non-profit that seeks to promote long-term thinking. They believe that the ‘faster / cheaper’ mindset has problems, and that we should consider slower and better ideas. They like to encourage people to think about the next 10,000 years. Which is a challenge. But it’s a bit like yoga, maybe — to stretch your mind that far.
David: And they’ve done a bunch of projects to help people do just that. They are building a clock to keep time for the next 10,000 years. Steward Brand, one of the founders of The Long Now, wants the clock to quote, ‘do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment.’ There are prototypes of the clock in London and San Francisco, and the clock itself is under construction in Texas. There’s a long Wikipedia article about that clock. We’ll put the link in the show notes.
David: The Long Now also funds an effort called ‘The Rosetta Project.’ Its objective is to preserve all the languages that are likely to go extinct in the next 100 years.
David: And The Long Now hosts a bunch of talks and seminars. Many of those are available on YouTube, so you can see them. Those are on far-ranging topics like how to invent everything, whether the human brain is resistant to truth, and Neil Gaiman on how stories last.
David: They’ve got another coming up in a few weeks. It’s called Radical Sharing. It’s about how we make a lasting, positive change in sharing the world with each other. The event will be live so you can ask questions and participate.
David: So far, I’ve found most of what they’re doing somewhere between groovy and fascinating. And I can get behind that. If you’re interested in The Long Now, you can find them at longnow.org. We’ll put a link in the notes.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more about the books we discussed and all the links you need to explore The Long Now Foundation.
David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.
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