The Wanderer & other Old-English Poems

My latest limited edition book from The Folio Society is The Wanderer illustrated and signed by Alan Lee. An artist best known for his decades long association with works by Tolkien, both in illustrating his books and his many years in New Zealand working on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.

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The text is largely from a 1966 Penguin Classic ‘The Earliest English Poems’, translated by Michael Alexander, which also included four pages of Beowulf. Over the years this has been revised until the 2008 edition which provides the entire text for this book, with some amendments, which by then was entitled ‘The First Poems in English’. Lee was approached by The Folio Society to see if he would like to illustrate something for them and between them chose this work as it takes him back to the source materials that so inspired Tolkien in his writings. This is by no means a typical way round, the society would normally choose a book that they wanted to publish and then approach an artist to illustrate it; but what it has produced is a book where you can see the love the artist has for the material and I suspect they eventually had to stop him from creating any more artwork so that the book could actually get published. As it is each poem has its own distinctive decorative borders along with the beautiful tipped in colour paintings and on page printed black and white illustrations.

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The poems and riddles themselves come from a very short window in time, between the reign of King Alfred the Great over the Anglo Saxons (886 to 899AD) where he started the process of moving the written word from Latin to Old-English and the Norman invasion of 1066 when all that was swept away with the imposition of Norman French. In truth there were probably just thirty or forty years where Old-English hit its peak before becoming almost extinct. The greatest source material for the work of this period is The Exeter Book which was regarded as largely worthless for centuries before becoming recognised as the treasure trove that it is.  The poems are much more powerful than might be expected from their great age, they clearly come from an oral tradition as they are directed at the reader as though being read to them, I am reminded of the Icelandic sagas in concept if not in size. Indeed as Bernard O’Donoghue writes in his especially commissioned foreword

There’s a vitality to these poems, written as they were at a time when life was so much more embattled, more desperate and fragile

Along with the general introduction and note on translation each poem has its own introduction setting the scene for the following work and providing mush needed context. The works are over a thousand years old and the people who wrote and read them were very different to ourselves.

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The original Penguin book its variants and companion volumes have sold over a million copies in the fifty years since they came out and the quality of the work shows exactly why Michael Alexander is such a respected translator and this edition makes reading them so much more of a joy than the original paperbacks. The text is presented with the original on the left hand side and the translation on the right as can be seen in one of my favourite works included the fragment of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ from the section of Heroic Poems. I suspect I like these more than the somewhat more introspective other poems is my fondness for the sagas and these have more of a feel of those. However this is an account of a real battle that can be also seen in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such a level of detail that there is also an accompanying map included with the text so the reader can easily see how the fight progresses, which frankly is not well for the English side and a lot better for the attacking Vikings.

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The riddles are great fun and at the back are a set of proposed solutions, however the one that I have shown as an example also has drawings by Alan Lee which somewhat give away the answer. All the riddles are from The Exeter Book where presumably there are a lot more as these start at number seven and there are lots of numeric gaps.

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The answer is of course mead.

As only 750 copies were printed at £395 each and these are all sold out from the Folio Society it would be difficult to get a copy of this fine edition, but if I have whetted your appetite for Old-English poetry and riddles then the Penguin paperback is still in print and considerably cheaper.

There is a short video showing the book from the Folio Society

and a longer video of an interview with Alan Lee.

 

Boule de Suif and other stories – Guy de Maupassant

I have six volumes of short stories by Maupassant, three of which include his most famous tale Boule de Suif (literally ball of suet), and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them. So in an effort to at least partly make amends I have picked one of the collections including Boule de Suif to read this week. The book I have chosen was the second title in the long running Penguin Classics publications and the fact that he was the second author chosen in this series, after Homer, suggests that the series editors regarded Maupassant highly. My copy is the first edition printed in 1946.

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There are seventeen short stories in this collection, but in total the book is only 218 pages long. Given that Boule de Suif is easily the longest at 45 pages on its own it is clear that some of the tales are extremely short and this for me is where Maupassant is at his best. Most, like ‘The Minuet’, are beautifully written character sketches where in just a handful of pages you feel you understand the sadness of the retired ballet master and his wife whose only solace is the park where he can dance uninterrupted and he believes unseen early in the morning. Others, such as ‘The Model’ are considerably less sympathetic to the protagonists, in fact rarely is Maupassant in tune with his female characters although some like Boule de Suif herself are beautifully drawn.

So lets get back to the title story, Boule de Suif as implied above is the less than flattering nickname given to an somewhat overweight prostitute who manages to get herself on a coach leaving Rouen trying to escape the occupation during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. The description of her in this translation is as follows:

The woman, one of those usually called “gay”, was famous for her youthful stoutness, which had earned her the nickname of Boule de Suif, the Dumpling. She was short and rotund, as fat as a pig, with puffy fingers constricted at the joints, like strings of miniature sausages: In spite of her shiny tightly stretched skin, and an enormous bust, which stuck out under her dress, she was nevertheless desirable, and was in fact much sought after, so attractive was her freshness. Her face was like a red apple, or a peony bud about to burst into flower. She had magnificent dark eyes, shaded by long thick lashes, and below a fascinating little mouth, moist to kiss, with tiny white teeth.

She was said moreover to possess many other attractions not visible to the eye.

Well you can certainly picture her from this sketch but I don’t think that she would have been very happy with the depiction. The story is very difficult to review without giving away too much but basically she is one of ten people on the coach in heavy snow which forces them into far closer proximity over a couple of days than any of them would like. Six are made up of two prosperous merchants along with the Comte de Bréville and their wives who regard themselves as far superior to all the others, there is also an idealist democrat who boasts of setting traps for the advancing Prussians but who would clearly rather escape than do anything risky now they are actually in his town. The party is completed by two nuns who take little part in the actual main story line. Suffice to say that Elisabeth Rousset aka Boule de Suif is treated shamefully by the rest of the characters and is frankly the only one to emerge with any credit at the end.

‘The Capture of Walter Schnapps’ is also set during the Franco-Prussian war and is about the only genuinely funny story in this collection, ‘The Deal’ is written to be funny but is too heavy handed in it’s telling to really succeed although it is possibly down to the translation rather than in the original French where it falls down. Back to Walter Schnapps though, he is an unhappy Prussian conscript who finds himself separated from his compatriots and resolves to become a prisoner of war to avoid further fighting and, more importantly for him, to get get better food than he is receiving. The problem is how to achieve this without getting shot in the process? The humour initially comes from his cowardice but towards the end it becomes a send up of wartime propaganda and all within nine pages.

I will just pick out two more of the tales included in this collection and these are both amongst the longest. ‘The Olive Grove’ is a dark story of a violent and arrogant past catching up with man who believes he has escaped it and does not end well for anyone. It is totally unlike all the other stories in this book and the contrast made it all the more striking. My final choice is also the final selection in the book ‘Madame Teller’s Establishment’, this was an absolute joy to read. Everyone in the story is so well described you feel you could have been with them on their trip. The story regards Madame Teller and her staff at her establishment which consists of five prostitutes and a waiter cum bouncer who looked after the rougher side of the house. She is invited to the confirmation of her niece and as she does not think that she can leave the business running in her absence, as she will need to be away overnight, she decides to take the five girls and the waiter with her to the little town where her brother lives. The resulting impact this has not only on her brothers town and the confirmation service but also back in her home where suddenly this well respected and frequented establishment closes without notice was beautifully told.

Well as I said at the beginning I have other collections of Maupassant and these will definitely be read soon after years of being neglected on my shelves and I heartily recommend him to you. There may be the occasional not very good story but they are all so short and surrounded by excellent alternatives that this hardly matters.

The Eyre Affair – Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s first novel also introduces his main protagonist, Thursday Next, an agent for LiteraTec Special Operations who has now appeared in seven books by Fforde. The books exists in an alternate history where, in the case of this book, the year is 1985 and the Crimean War is now into its 135th year, there are companies commercially genetically engineering extinct species so a popular pet is a dodo and Special Operations includes division 27 which looks after works of literature. In fact literature seems to dominate society with people changing their names to that of famous authors to such an extent that they are legally obliged to have a number tattooed on them to identify which John Milton you are talking to for example. There is also the Goliath Corporation a firm that has made billions in financing the Crimean War and seems to have various shadowy sidelines of it’s own which are strictly for the good of the corporation.

A running trope through this book is “Who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?” sometimes there are short discussions regarding Bacon or Marlowe and in one tedious section which ruins the flow of the plot a whole series of pages are dedicated to this discussion for no good reason whatsoever.

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The book after all is theoretically about Jane Eyre, although in fact for almost half the story it is about Martin Chuzzlewit. The basic conceit of the book is that there is a master criminal who obtains a machine invented by Thursday’s uncle Mycroft which allows people to travel in and out of works of literature. Archeron Hades steals the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ work, removes one of the minor characters and has him killed in the present day. This changes all copies of the book, even those already printed, and he threatens to do the same to Chuzzlewit himself unless a ransom is paid.

For various reasons the plot is foiled and the ransom not paid but Hades escapes to the fiercely independent Republic of Wales where he cannot be followed by English justice, only to try again by this time stealing the original manuscript of Jane Eyre and kidnapping Jane herself immediately before she rescues Mr Rochester from his flaming bed. All copies of the book are therefore much shorter and there is uproar. Thursday Next is sent to get Jane and the book back together.

As implied above there are numerous sub plots, in fact far too many sub plots, as the book is overly complicated by them. You get the feeling that Fford is trying to show off his literary erudition at the expense of just telling a good story and there is definitely a good story to be found in there if you work at it. I’m inclined to forgive him as this is his first published work and I will definitely read at least the next volume about Thursday Next entitled “Lost in a Good Book” which is set a few months after “The Eyre Affair”.

The book cover by the way is printed to look as though it is rather dog-eared, my copy is brand new.

Chapter 13

There is an ongoing joke in Fforde’s books regarding chapter thirteen or rather the lack of one. If there are numbered chapters then there is always one listed in the contents at the start but in fact chapter 14 always immediately follows chapter 12 and the page given for chapter 13 to start is either blank or part way through chapter 12. They do however have titles:

  • The Eyre Affair – The church at Capel-y-ffin
  • Lost in a Good Book – Mount Pleasant
  • The Well of Lost Plots – Reservoir near the church of St Stephen
  • Something Rotten – Milton
  • First Amongst Sequels – Cross Lewis’ number
  • One of Our Thursdays is Missing – 14th May 1931
  • The Woman Who Died a Lot – A Penguin
  • The Big Over Easy – First on the right
  • The Fourth Bear – 111110000

Note: assuming 111110000 is binary then the decimal equivalent is 496, it is anyone’s guess if this is significant or if there is any meaning to the choice of titles for the missing chapters; although the 14th May 1931 was a Thursday.

Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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Yesterday was International Dylan Thomas day and marked the anniversary of the first ever performance of the great Welsh poet’s final work; Under Milk Wood. This show on 14th May 1953 was also the only time Thomas was recorded on stage giving any sort of performance of the work and sadly he was to die before the classic BBC recording starring Richard Burton was broadcast on the 25th January 1954. I have the vinyl recording of that original performance and it is playing now as I type this with Thomas’s distinctive voice taking four parts, that of 1st voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, 2nd drowned and 5th drowned. The rest of the cast are Dion Allen, Allen F Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire and between them they play the remaining 50 parts.

The recording was more accidental than intentional, there was a recording scheduled for 1954 with Caedmon but Thomas’s death prevented that happening. However somebody left a tape recorder at the front of the stage with the microphone probably nearer to Thomas than the other cast members mainly for their own use to record the first performance. As a single microphone on a device intended for amateur recordings it does remarkably well in picking up not only all the actors but also the audience and has left us with  a remarkable historical record. Caedmon therefore used this for their release of Under Milk Wood. The New York audience clearly didn’t know what to expect from this Welsh poet and you can hear them gradually realise that it is intentionally funny and the way the actors bounce partial sentences between themselves gives a delightful rhythm to the blank verse.

Under Milkwood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’ which sounds an odd description until you realise that it was intended to be a radio play for the BBC so there are no stage directions, it was always intended to be read by the cast not acted.

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My printed copy is the 1972 Folio Society first edition of the work and, as usual for Folio, it is a lovely edition. It restores the text back to the original broadcast script with some extra lines which he left out originally, probably due to running time, added as an appendix. Although Thomas did deliver the script to the BBC he was still fiddling with it up to his death as he gave various readings in an attempt to earn enough money to pay off his debts, specifically a large back payment owed for income tax. So the typescripts are full of corrections and amendments and he never did come to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion to the piece, which had always been rushed as he only finished the ending included on the album minutes before they started the performance and kept changing this at subsequent performances.  As Douglas Cleverdon (the BBC producer of the 1954 broadcast version) notes in his introduction to the Folio edition.

Two stage readings of Under Milk Wood were scheduled for 24 and 25 October at the Kaufmann Auditorium, New York. Under a mixture of alcohol, sleeping pills and cortisone drugs, Dylan was already in a near state of collapse. He managed to write another page for the closing sequence of the script; to take part on the two readings, and to edit a shortened version for publication in the American magazine Mademoiselle. On 5 November he was taken to hospital in a coma, and died four days later.

If he had survived the play would undoubtedly have been further amended, on the back of one page of the manuscript is a section entitled “More Stuff for Actors to Say” and there are parts of the Caedmon recording that were subsequently removed so it was definitely still a work in progress at least as far as Thomas was concerned even after he had submitted the ‘final version’ to the BBC.

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One final thing that should be mentioned is the setting of the play in a small Welsh village of Llareggub. This has the advantage of looking like a Welsh place name without being one, you don’t get a double g in Welsh. However anyone looking closely at the name and especially if you spell it backwards will see that here is another joke by Dylan Thomas. For this reason early editions of the script spell the village differently and even the Caedmon recording uses Lareggub when referring to the place in the notes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett paid homage to Dylan Thomas when he named the equivalent of Wales on the Discworld Llamedos.

You can hear the first part of the performance I’m listening to on youtube here  It starts with Thomas as First Voice setting the scene.

First Folio: 1

Mention the words First Folio to most book collectors and their initial thought will go to the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623; and indeed I will come to that in a later blog as I have a copy of the Norton facsimile. Hence this essay being entitled First Folio: 1, the facsimile will be covered in First Folio: 2 in a few weeks time.

So what is this one about then? Well in 1946 after being demobbed from WWII Charles Ede was looking for a way to make a hobby into a career. He had discovered the beauty of the pre war private presses whilst still a schoolboy, publishers such as William Morris and the Kelmscott Press. During the war he had started a collection of Kelmscott, Nonesuch and Golden Cockerel Press fine editions but these really were the preserve of the book buyer with a significant disposable income and well beyond the means of most people. What he had spotted was what he believed was a gap in the market, even if his friend, Christopher Sandford, then running The Golden Cockerel Press thought the gap was too small for anyone to make a business from it. What if somebody could print fine editions of books but at a price that more people could afford? In a quote I particularly love as it ties my two largest book collections together Sandford said

But life is full of wonders, and people like you do get away with things – like Lane and his Penguins – so thumbs up.

So Ede went for training at the London College of Printing and by October of the next year The Folio Society was born.

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The first title was a collection of short stories by Tolstoy, my copy has some damage to the dust jacket where somebody has clearly put a cup down on it but as you don’t often come by Folio’s first book with dust jacket I added it to my collection nevertheless. The tales included are:

  • The Raid
  • Two Hussars
  • Three Deaths
  • Polikushka
  • Two Old Men
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyitch

The idea was that books would be published at the rate of one a month and sold through standard booksellers, neither of which turned out to be the case. The first few titles did get sold that way but the retailers weren’t really interested in a new small publishing venture, so building on the idea of the Society part of the name Charles Ede by the end of 1947 decided to turn it into a club and sell only to members which added to the exclusive aspect of the books.

 

The first few years were hard and the Society survived by doing other things beyond the original plan such as private editions and selling manuscript pages along with fine art prints but slowly the subscriber base grew especially when the concept of a free presentation volume for members who agreed to purchase a minimum number of books each year was introduced in 1950.

To be frank part of the problem with the early years was that because of the ongoing paper rationing and the quality of what was available the first few books are not as good as Ede wanted, this is particularly clear with Tales by Tolstoy which was printed in Belgium to get round the shortage of paper but the actual printing as Ede himself noted in 1968 in the first Folio bibliography ‘Folio 21’

The printers, who only undertook the job as a favour, were not used to this type of work and the standard leaves a good deal to be desired.

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and as the above illustration from Three Deaths illustrates it really isn’t that good, the picture appears to be over-inked and lacks the lightness of touch that a line-blocked pen and ink sketch would have in later years. The paper also feels rough and not what you would expect from a fine edition.

The Folio Society did however manage to get out a total of three books in 1947 so the equivalent of one per month, something they were not to manage regularly until 1955 with 13 volumes and have never dropped below 12 in a year since then. The second was Trilby by George du Maurier which also became the first book from the society to be illustrated by the author, something that is still a rarity today.

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This book was much better quality than the Tolstoy edition, although also printed by Brepols in Belgium, and contains a 5 page appendix which prints for the first time in book form a section of the book which clearly describes the painter James Whistler and was presumably left out of earlier editions for legal reasons. The drawings by du Maurier are reproduced very well, this one is entitled ‘the soft eyes’

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The first Folio Society book to be printed in the UK was book number 3 Aucassin & Nicolette, translated from Old French by F.W. Bourdillon and this was a real oddity. The first two books were traditional editions in paper dust jackets, this is a lot smaller at 8.9 x 5.8 inches (226 x 148 mm) and the jacket is transparent plastic printed in black with the title and illustrator information.

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The plastic wrapper has often got lost over the years or the text rubbed off, mine is in very good condition, the poor appearance in the photograph is due to glare off the plastic. The black print on the slippery plastic continues on the inside of the wrapper and again is prone to damage.

 

The title page gives a feeling of the book which is my favourite of the first three and gives the first real hint of Folio as a fine press publisher, at 10s 6d it cost the equivalent of just over £20 today which for a 60 page book is quite a lot but it is a lovely edition. The printer was the Chiswick Press who would go on to print many editions for Folio.

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What is noticeable to those people familiar with the production of the Folio Society today is that books all have dust jackets, the familiar slip cases did not become standard until 1959 although they had started to appear in 1956 and dust jackets were still used throughout the 1960’s although mainly for the subscribers presentation volume.

These three books in my collection are all first editions in Folio, in fact none of them were ever reprinted, the first book to make it to a second impression was Shakespeare’s Sonnets, originally printed in 1948 and reprinted 3 times in the next 42 years before being replaced by a completely new edition.

Last year the society reached it’s 70th birthday and a couple of years before that finally abandoned the membership concept that served it so well along with the idea of a free presentation volume other than the occasional diary or notebook to encourage buyers to spend more. Nowadays the website is open to everyone and you can just have one book if that is all you require. At the last count I have over 425 Folio books and still happily add more each year, the only years where I don’t own at least one example of that years publications are 1967 and 2006, so beware the Folio Society is definitely addictive…

Penguin Drop Caps

In 2012 Penguin Books started a series of books for sale in the USA and Canada and it made use of their extensive back catalogue along with some newer modern classics in a handsome new style hardback binding. The tagline of the set is

It all begins with a letter

and the concept was to produce 26 titles where each letter of the alphabet was represented by the surname of the author. An interesting idea especially over the choice of names for some of the more difficult letters. What made the set a cohesive whole was the decision to have all the letters on the covers designed by one person, Jessica Hische, and for her to create an evocative set of designs. Adding the input of Penguin Art Director Paul Buckley we ended up with a rainbow of classic books which call to you from the shelves and look totally different to anything else I have. Good design has been the hallmark of Penguin Books from their beginning in 1935 and it’s good to see that tradition being respected in a modern set.

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Of course a set like this appeals to the collector part of me, especially when they are not officially available in the UK as I like a challenge, but it also harks back to the very first Penguin Books I initially accumulated, then decided to collect, which was the early (first 125) Penguin Classics.  Buying a set of books forces you to purchase authors you may not have been intending to buy or even to have heard of and once the book is on the shelf it would be remiss not to at least give the book a go. The first title is a case in point; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is not a title that has ever appealed but I have to say that much to my surprise I’m really enjoying it. I have also read Madame Bovary, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Five Children and It, and Cannery Row so far and I’m looking forward to tackling authors I don’t know at all such as Willa Cather and Sigrid Undset.

The full list is as follows:

  • Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
  • Bronte, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
  • Cather, Willa – My Antonia
  • Dickens, Charles – Great Expectations
  • Eliot, George – Middlemarch
  • Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
  • Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
  • Hesse, Hermann – Siddhartha
  • Ishiguro, Kazou – An Artist of the Floating World
  • Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Kidd, Sue Monk – The Secret life of Bees
  • Lee, Chang-rae – Native Speaker
  • Melville, Herman – Moby-Dick
  • Nesbit, E – Five Children and It
  • O’Hara, John – Butterfield 8
  • Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
  • Queen, Ellery – The Greek Coffin Mystery
  • Rushdie, Salman – Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Steinbeck, John – Cannery Row
  • Tan, Amy – The Joy Luck Club
  • Undset, Sigrid – Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath
  • Voltaire – Candide
  • Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose
  • Xinran – Sky Burial
  • Yeats, William Butler – When You are Old
  • Zafon, Carlos Ruiz – Shadow of the Wind

A to F came out in 2012, G to P in 2013 and Q to Z in 2014 although I only started to collect these books towards the end of last year (2017) so the last 5 have only recently arrived and I didn’t buy them in alphabetical order but rather which 4 or 5 a month I could find at a sensible price.  Their official retail price varies on the copies I have between US $23 and $30 although the Canadian prices fluctuate much more widely between $24 and $40. The cheapest I found one in the UK was around £10 and had to spend up to £17 to get the last few I was missing.

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The spines are also attractive and make a bold statement on the shelf next to me as I write this, as can be seen in the picture above the page edges are also coloured to complement the cover and the rear cover has a short quote from the book that Penguin have turned into a parlour game

Mine is from Great Expectations:

Suffering has been stronger than all the other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be.

and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race

Not the cheeriest of quotes but I’m not going to let them put me off reading all these as they are lovely books with a clear font (Archer) as you would hope from a series that takes lettering seriously and a pleasure to pull off the shelf and sit down with.