Book History, Episodes

27. Comic Fun with Les Bandes Dessinées

Hello Book Lovers,

Oh yeah, it’s time to get your nerd on with this one because we’re talking comic books. Specifically, comic books from France and Belgium.

That sounds really specific, but these books — known as les bandes dessinées — gained popularity in the 1930s and have only gotten more popular over the decades…even though there was a little kerfuffle during the post-World War II period.

As for me, I was a huge fan of the Smurfs as a kid (I had a slight crush on Johan) and have now reignited my comic nerdom with the Asterix & Obelix books.

But, I ramble on about this in the episode, so I better stop here and let you get to listening.

Enjoy!

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Episode Transcript (or roughly so)…

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

Intro

And holy moly it seems like FOREVER since I’ve been in front of the microphone. I don’t even know what episode number we’re on. 27? Hope so. I also hope I remember how to do all the processing to get this thing out to you. Otherwise this would be a little pointless.

So, April was a weird month for me and I cover why that is in my writing update, and if you want more details there’ll be a link in the show notes (I know you missed me saying that, right?) but suffice it to say that things went a little wacky medically, personally, and with my writing stuff.

And because of all that weirdness I had a lot of trouble getting into a book. I don’t know how many novels I started and just gave up on. Even audiobooks weren’t capturing my attention. And who knows, maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe they were just crappy books.

Either way, what I did find myself gravitating toward were graphic novels. Specifically French graphic novels because my library’s online dohicky added a whole bunch of them to their system. So I thought, what a perfect topic for the podcast after its long spring break.

One Caveat

So just to let you know, this episode is going to specifically be about French comics, or les bandes dessinées, NOT about American comic books, although they do play a part in the story.

Joining the Bandes

Alright, if you’re wondering, the term Bandes Dessinées translates to drawn strips and if you’re cool you shorten it to BD, but that sounds like bidet, so I’m just going to call them BD from now on for the most part.

These are also known as Franco-Belgian comics because they mainly got their start in Belgium where they were known as Stripverhalen, or strip stories, both of which sound like names for a strip club newsletter.

These Belgian comics, if they were written in Flemish, would then be translated into French where they were crazy popular.

Early Strippers

The early versions of these comics, which began in the mid- to late 1800s were a little different from their American cousins because the American comics mainly were used in a political way to mock or criticize the government or people trying to push their weight around. France and Belgium took a more light-hearted approach and kept theirs mostly humorous.

Obviously you’d recognize these comics as comics if you saw them, but they were a little different than what we’re used to today. There was usually only one panel or a very short strip of panels and there were no word bubbles. It was like they hadn’t come up with that idea yet, so the comics would have captions like what people were used to seeing under photos in magazines.

Hubba-Bubba Bubble

So eventually someone flips the calendar page and it’s the 1900s. Comics start appearing in a more episodic nature in magazines or newspapers, meaning that each issue built on the story started in the previous issue. They were pretty popular amongst French readers, but none of these comics really took off outside of France.

And I can’t blame them, one of the more pervasive seres of comics was put out by the Catholic Church’s Union of French Catholic Workers. These comics were geared toward kids and covered that kid-favorite topic of health and correct behavior. Yeah, I know, gripping stuff, right?

But even though things were limping along on the popularity scale, in the 1920s we finally start to see word bubbles in France. Hoorah! Although they had been popping up (see what I did there) in the US, the first French artist to use them was Alain Saint-Ogan.

Unfortunately, the French can be stubborn about changing their ways, and the caption format still continued to dominate comics for at least another couple decades.

The Dark Side of Tintin

Moving along to 1930, we finally have a breakout hit and we also have the first true Belgian Bandes Dessinées. Or do we…? So, as I said, these comics were coming out in episodic form in periodicals.

One of these periodicals was Le Vingtieme Siecle and they eventually put the artist Hergé in charge of a new supplement for kids called Le Petit Vingtieme. And in this supplement Hergé began the story of an adventurous character named Tintin.

Well, Tintin was so popular the newspaper decided to put his first complete story into a hardcover book and claimed it was the first BD published.

Which was a total lie because the publisher Hachette had already published their own BD of the comic Zig et Puce a year or two earlier.

But that wasn’t Tintin’s only controversy. See, Le Vingtieme was a very conservative magazine that just loved to drive home its far-right, fascist views. And some of these views made their way into the Tintin comics, which included a lot of racial slurs and stereotypes. Hergé wasn’t exactly cool with this, but he went along with it anyway, and did later apologize for his portrayal of African people and Jews and a whole lotta stuff.

He never did apologize for taking credit for claiming Tintin as the first BD though. That I know of.

But credit where credit is due. Although Tintin wasn’t the first BD, it was the first to gain popularity outside of France and Belgium and by 1934 Tintin (and I assume Hergé) moved onto a new publisher, was selling all over the place, and had been translated into dozens of languages.

A Popular Year

1934, must have been a popular year for comics because it’s during this year that we also see the publication of the 8-page BD Le Journal de Mickey. It was an instant success. Publishers, not being idiots, quickly brought over more American cartoon characters and tossed them into the pages of their comic pages and BD.

Tough Luck for Superman

But all didn’t continue going so splendidly for those US characters. So, in the early 1940s there was this little skirmish called World War II. You might have heard of it.

Germany got all grabby and invaded France and Belgium. And because the Americans weren’t telling Germany what a great job they did with those invasions, the Germans put a ban on all US comics and cartoon characters because they questioned the morals of those fictional characters. Yes, the regime who invented concentration camps said Superman had questionable morals.

Anyway, as you might expect this only made the French and Belgians want comics even more. Since it was really tricky, and probably dangerous, to get your hands on American comics, young artists seized the chance to fill the need for some levity.

These artists emulated the American style and stories to learn the ropes, but eventually they created their own characters and styles.

And a couple artists from this time period who the BD nerds out there will recognize are Peyo, who would go on to create The Smurfs, and Albert Uderzo, who created Asterix and Obelix.

War is Over…But Not for Comics

So yay, we’re up to the late 1940s and the war is over. Unfortunately, it’s not quite over for comics. See, during the war those young artists I mentioned earlier gained status, their BD were popular, and they had probably kept morale up for many people.

So they were rewarded by being tossed into prison. Seriously. When the new French government came into place after the war, it was mostly made of people who had been strong players in the resistance. Well, they claimed that these artists could only have done well during a time of war by collaborating with the Germans. See, conspiracy theories are nothing new.

And US comics weren’t fairing any better in post-war France than they did during the German occupation. The communist party of France reinstated the ban on American comics because they promoted capitalism and non-communist ideals.

I mean just look at Bruce Wayne. That mansion. The Batmobile. A freaking butler. Clearly his main goal wasn’t to fight crime, it was to subvert the communist cause.

Anyway, during this time many French artists hightailed it to Belgium to avoid scrutiny. Many French magazines that contained comics didn’t survive the war or this post-war period, so who knows how many hijinks we missed out on.

Things are Looking Up

By the 1950s most of the accused artists had their names cleared and were released from prison. And again Tintin and other BD gain a foothold across the globe. And it’s also in the 1950s, 1959 to be exact, that the French periodical Pilote published something to attract teenage readers. The something was Asterix.

And if you don’t know Asterix, he’s this scrappy little Gaul from the time of the Roman invasion of France (or Gaul). And it’s one of my absolute favorites mainly due to the tongue-in-cheek humor, which unfortunately doesn’t always come across in the English translations (especially with the character names), so if you can read French, opt for that version instead.

Sign of the Times

In the 1960s and into the 70s, social norms really start changing in the world. It’s also when some of those people who might have been kids when Tintin and Asterix came out, were now becoming adults. As such, and because there is just this huge increase in BD artists, we start seeing far more adult BD and more adults reading BD, as well as an increase in comic periodicals such as Le Canard Sauvage.

Honoring the Art

So even though one source I used to research this episode said the 1980s saw a steep decline in BD, I’m not quite sure if that’s accurate because in 1982 the French government recognized the importance BD to France’s cultural status and in promoting a French product to the world.

Even more clear that BD weren’t in decline, the French Minister of Culture declared comic art was a true art form, and it became known as the Neuvieme Art, or ninth art  in his policy plan called 15 new measures in favor of the comic.

BD were so NOT in decline that this policy plan was revamped in the late 1990s.

Belgium was a little slower to adopt comic art as a true art form in its own right, but eventually they did, and for a long time France and Belgium were the only two countries to recognize comic art as legit art and to give it backing by cultural authorities.

And the Belgians, even though they lagged behind at first, really went all in with this comics are great idea and built what is the largest comic book museum in the world. It’s called the Belgium Comic Strip Museum in Brussels. It opened in 1989, and receives an average of 200,000 visitors a year…obviously in non-pandemic years.

Updates

So that’s all I’ve got for BD, which means it’s Update Time!

So, as you can already hear, the podcast is back. As I mentioned before the break, I had intended to do video book reviews during the break. I did one. I’m telling you, April was a weird month. But I have done a couple more and they are up on my YouTube channel, if you want to watch them.

I’ve been doing a lot of video stuff lately, so if you like a bit of video goofiness you should probably subscribe to my channel because I guess that’s what I’m supposed to tell you to do to make the YouTube gods happy.

Also, this week I released the third book in my Cassie Black trilogy! It’s so weird to be done!! And if you’re listening to this before the end of May 2021, I’m running a pretty nice discount on Book One of the trilogy, which is The Undead Mr Tenpenny. It’s only 99c on most retailers, but like I said, only for a few more days, so get cracking if you want to get the deal.

As for the new book, the new book is

—THE UNTANGLED CASSIE BLACK—

Sometimes taking an overdose of magic is the least of your worries.

Cassie Black has just lost two people through a magic portal. Her archenemy, the Mauvais, is threatening to destroy city after city if HQ doesn’t hand her over to him. And HQ isn’t exactly saying no to that offer.

As HQ debates her fate, Cassie refuses to sit by and watch the grass grow between the toes of the surveillance gnomes. Biting back her life rule to never get involved, she knows the only way to stop the Mauvais is to go after him herself.

Which is exactly what he wants. Because the instant Cassie falls into his hands, the Mauvais will gain the unlimited power he’s always craved.

So don’t get captured, right? Easy for you to say.

Trouble is, there’s a traitor within HQ who’s proving to be more devious, more powerful, and to have more tricks up the sleeve than anyone could have ever guessed.

In this page-turning conclusion of the Cassie Black Trilogy, the curses are flying, the pastries are plentiful, the bookworms are slithering, and the magical batteries are charged to capacity.

Wrapping Up

Alright everyone, thank you so much for joining me again. If you like what you’ve heard, you can support the show by buying one of my books. And if you do buy one of my books be sure to leave a review. That really is the best way to support any indie author…and your favorite podcast. I am your favorite, right? Right?

Ah well, have a great couple weeks and I will hoot at you next time!

Credits

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2021, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by auphonic .com. Video production by Headliner dot app.

Episodes, Having Fun

25. Going to Bookish Extremes

 

The Book Owl Podcast is (almost) a year old! And like many people will do during milestone birthdays, The Book Owl has decided to take things to the extreme. Sorry, it doesn’t involve bungie jumping. In this episode we explore some bookish extremes from the biggest book to the biggest library, the oldest tome to the oldest bookstore, and much more. Fair warning…there is singing involved.

Mentioned in This Episode….

Like what you hear?

The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore. 

Intro

So it’s Episode 25. And you’re now saying, so what. Well, right about a year ago (give or take a few day) I released the trailer for The Book Owl Podcast. Yep, it was my vocal debut…laaaa! I was as nervous as you can get without actually having heart failure. And before recording that trailer, and the first three or four episodes, if I’m being honest, I REALLY had to convince myself to get in front of the microphone. Now, recording is the part of putting these episodes together that I enjoy the most…cause I’m a big ol’ ham stuck in an introvert’s body.

And I can hear you saying, What is your point, you mad woman!? My point is The Book Owl Podcast is one year old. So Happy Birthday to the Book Owl!

As many people will do with milestone birthdays, the Book Owl is taking things to the extreme. No, not bungie jumping or parachuting…maybe I’ll save that for the 2nd birthday party. Instead, we’re looking at some extremes of book nerdy trivia. From the largest book to the oldest library, you’re going to have oodles of facts to annoy people with when we do ever get the chance to get together and are forced to make chit chat. You remember chitchat, right? Anyone? Anyone?

Starting Off With Thanks

But before we jump into the extremes of the book world, a triple round of thanks needs to be taken care of. First, I have to thank Ivonne for buying the Book Owl a cuppa as a way to show her support for the show. Ivonne is an Instagram buddy who I swear must be penpals with half the world. She creates some gorgeous letters, envelopes, and papery goodies I’d imagine must be a delight to get in the mail.

A second thanks goes yet again to Jonathon Pongratz for repeatedly sharing the show on his own Jaunts & Haunts blog. And a final bit of thanks goes to LaVelle who took the plunge and purchased some Book Owl swag. It looks like she got a few t-shirts with the Book Owl logo emblazoned across the front, so hopefully she’s enjoying those and sparking people’s curiosity about the show as she sports them around town.

Of course, if you like what you’re hearing, I’m just glad you’re listening, reviewing, and sharing, But if you are enjoying the show and want to lend the owl a little support, there’s loads of very inexpensive ways to do just that by popping into that Support link in the show notes..

Okay, let’s go to the extreme.

Defining a Book

So before we start this I’m going to put out a, I don’t know caveat, explanation, whatever. When I refer to “book” I mean an item made up of pages that is bound together and held in a cover of some sort. 

There are some things that are considered “books” that are actually just a series of tablets, or scrolls, or whatnot, but for this show, a book is what likely immediately comes to mind when someone says book. Not a bookie, that is something entirely different… and something you might want to avoid.

The Oldest Book

So let’s start off with the oldest book out there. And that would be The Golden Orphism Book. Orphism was a religion in Ancient Greece and in Thracia, which is now Bulgaria, and the religion was based around the story of Orpheus, which is actually one of my favorite Greek myths, so cool. But rather than contain that heartbreaking myth, the book is more of a handbook that describes the burial rites of the religion.

The book is 2,670 years old and was only found 70 years ago during a dig in Bulgaria. And it’s pretty small, only 5 cm tall, which is about 2 inches, and weighs right around 100g, or about 3.5 ounces. But for its small size, it’s pretty eye catching as its six pages are made of entirely of gold, hence its other not-so-clever name The Etruscan Gold Book…and I thought I was bad at coming up with titles. But wait, what’s with that Etruscan bit? Well, it was written in Etruscan. Again, not so clever with the naming. 

The Smallest Book

Okay, so at only a couple inches tall, that Etruscan book is kind of tiny, but it’s HUGE compared to the two smallest books in the world. And yeah, I had to cheat here and go with two because for some reason the book Teeny Ted from Turnip Town (great title, by the way) is touted as the smallest. It’s a mere 0.07 mm by 0.10 mm, that’s smaller than a poppy seed! It was created using nano imaging on 30 itty bitty sheets of silica. There were 100 copies made. But while you’re getting your copy, stop by the hardware store and grab a scanning electron microscope because that’s the only way you can read it.

Okay so that’s impressive, but a Russian man, Vladimir Aniskin, created, by hand mind you not with some fancy schmancy nano laser dohicky, a book that measures only .07 by .09 mm, making it 0.01mm smaller than the “smallest book”. So, I’m still confused as to why Teeny Ted is considered the smallest. 

Anyway, Vladimir’s book is made on sheets of super thin film and the crazy part is he bound them with thin wire so you can actually turn the pages, if you have a special tool to do so. And again, you’re going to be glad you picked up that electron microscope because you’ll also need it to read this book, so be sure to add that in to your book-buying budget for the month.

Most Expensive

Speaking of budgets, want to know what the most expensive book in the world is? Well, it’s a little tricky.

Okay, so let me explain…the most expensive book by purchase price was a copy of the Book of Mormon which sold for something like $34-ish million. The second priciest book at the auction house sold for nearly $31 million. And both of those were sold back in the 1990s. But due to adjusting for inflation and the perceived value of the work, that cheapo book is now ranked as the most expensive book in the world.

So what is this pricey book and who’s the luck owner? Well, it was bought by Bill Gates and is Leonardo da Vinci’a Codex Leicester, named for the Earl of Leicester who owned it before Mr. Microsoft. The book was created in 1506-1510 and is full of da Vinci’s notes on fossils, water flow, astronomy, it has sketches of various things from da Vinci’s imaginative mind, and is mostly written in his backwards, mirror handwriting. So it’s expensive sure, but at least buying a mirror to read it is cheaper than that electron microscope.

Largest Book

I like big books and I cannot lie? No? Well, if you can’t impress people with the most expensive book in the world, how about the biggest book in the world? This thing required all sorts of special equipment to put together and is even more impressive because it was entirely handmade using traditional bookbinding methods. It was written, illustrated, and put together in Hungary by Belga Varga. And I don’t know maybe this guy was really into large print books, but this thing is 4.2 m by 3.8 m, which is 14 by 12 feet; it weighs 1420 kg, or just over 3100 pounds; and six people and a special tool are required to turn the pages. 

But don’t worry, it won’t take long to read, because it only has 346 pages. And I bet a lot of that is taken up with pictures since the book is all about the animals, plants, and geology of Begla’s small village. 

Longest Book

But what will take you a long time to read is what’s been deemed the world’s longest book. This is the romantic tale Artaméne, ou le Grand Cyrus and was written in the 17th century by Madeline de Scudery who apparently had a lot of time on her hands. It’s so long it couldn’t be bound into a single book, and was instead put into 10 volumes of romance novel splendor…no word on if Fabio was on any off the covers. 

Okay, so how big is it? It’s a whopping 2.1 million words. To put that into perspective, the average novel these days is about 60 to 80,000 words, and the massive tome War & Peace is about 550,000 words. 

So, are you ready to tackle it? Well, you’re in luck because Artaméne is in the public domain. But fair warning before you dive in, it does only get a 2.9 star average on Goodreads.

Oldest Library

So, let’s close the books and take a look at extreme places to get some books. And just as we started with the world’s oldest book, let’s start with the world’s oldest library. Or let’s try to because again I am a little confused on this bit of trivia. 

So, the place that’s touted as the oldest library was started in 859 CE. It’s the al-Qarawiyyin Library (AL – CORE – OH – WEE- INN) and was founded by Fatima al-Fihri, who was the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant and she also founded the Qarawiyyin Mosque and Qarawiyyin University, so kudos to her! And I did practice that pronunciation with How to Pronounce dot com, so I hope I’ve got it close.

So Fatima’s library fell into disrepair and had to be shut down for a while except to certain scholars. Well, in 2012 a renovation project began, and the library was reopened to the public in 2017.

Okay, so 859 CE, that’s pretty old and like I said, it’s ranked as the oldest, but there is another library at the foot of Mt Sinai that was started around 550 CE and this is the Saint Catherine’s Monastery library and it’s been in continuous use ever since it began. So I’m still not sure why this one isn’t considered the oldest and I couldn’t find a concrete answer to that. Maybe because it’s not exactly a public library, and it’s more of a religious library? I don’t know. So if you happen to know why, please let me know because it’s really bugging me.

Anyway, St. Catherine’s is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it does have the second largest collection of ancient manuscripts, the library in Vatican City has the largest…hey, another extreme and I didn’t even try!

Largest Library

I like big libraries and I cannot lie? Still no? Okay. Well, the battle for extremes continues because we’ve also got some contention for the largest library in the world. And by largest, I don’t mean by square footage, I mean by collection size. 

Because according to the Wikipedia gurus, both the British Library and the Library of Congress have 170 million items in their collections. Although the British Library I think might be trying to squeeze a few more items in by listing their collection size at 170 to 200 million (you know, like they’re not sure…or more like they don’t want to concede to us pesky Americans.). Fair enough. Still, number funding or not, these collections are impressive because the next largest in the list is the Shanghai Library with a mere 59 million items. It’s like they’re not even tying to win. Sheesh.

Oldest Bookstore

And finally we come to our last extreme…the world’s oldest bookstore. And after seeing this place, I really want to go there. It’s Betrand’s Bookstore located in Lisbon, Portugal. And it opened its doors in 1732. Unfortunately, the bookstore itself doesn’t date to 1732 it was toppled in a massive earthquake in 1755. But fear not, the bookstore was rebuilt soon after the earthquake an so can still claim it’s status as oldest. Hoorah for you Betrand’s and some day when I can travel again, I will be browsing your aisles. 

So that’s it for extremes, except now the Book Owl is wondering where the largest birthday cake might be. So while the baker’s get the ovens ready, how about a few updates?

Update Time

I am very very very happy to say that the worst is over in my writing world. For now anyway. 

I just wrapped up the final big edit on the third Cassie Black book, which means the hardest work for the trilogy is done. I’ll still be doing another proofread of book two and possibly give book three one or two more passes, but these really are just going to be proofreading and making teeny tiny tweaks to the language. Which is good because my red pen is nearly out of ink after the last blast of edits I did on both books earlier this month. 

And that was a bit of misery. I read book two and edited it one week, mostly minor edits, but still time consuming. Then the following week I read and edited book three, and that was a pretty big edit going over my own changes and suggestions from my beta readers. And seriously, I hate my own words at this point. But at the end of that second week, I felt a ginormous amount of relief. 

As I’ve said before, I have had more fun than ever writing the trilogy, but the pace to get these last two books done and ready for my review team and for publication has been insane. 

Speaking of review teams, if you want to join mine, there is a link in the show notes to apply. It’s a quick and easy application, but if you like to review books and if you want to see my stuff before anyone else, I’d encourage you to check it out.

Outro

Okay my book loving friends, that is it for this birthday bonanza. I hope you enjoyed the show. If you did, please please please share it with one other person, leave a review, or pop into that link to show your support. Have a great couple weeks and I will hoot at you next time.

Credits

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2021, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by auphonic .com. Video production by Headliner dot app.

Episodes, Having Fun

23. Super Sappy Letters of Love

 

The Book Owl is a little belated, but this episode is all about the lovey-dovey, super-gushy story of love letters. From that very first Valentine (which may not actually exist) to the oldest (and sappiest) love letter in English, it’s time to use words to bare our souls!

Mentioned in This Episode….

Like what you hear?

The (Rough) Transcript

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore. 

Intro

Now, I know I’m running a little late with this, but when I was trying to come up with an idea for this 23rd episode of the podcast, it was right around Valentine’s Day and love was in the air. Of course I am head over heels for books and could have maybe come up with a lengthy poem about that lifelong adoration, but since I’m not at all poetic, I thought I’d step away from books this time, and instead turn to another form of writing: the love letter. 

But before we jump into this lovey dovey, super gushy episode, give me just a few moments to share a special announcement. 

The Big Announcement

As you know, I usually save my updates for the end of the show, but I’m a bit too ecstatic over this week’s update to wait that long. So, the big news is, shoot, I should have found a drum roll soundbite, anyway the big news is…

My latest novel The Undead Mr. Tenpenny launched its way into the world on Tuesday. The book is available at all major ebook retailers including Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Tolino, and on my very own Payhip BookStore, for slightly less than you’ll pay at the other stores. It’s not a huge discount, but you know. The book also available as a paperback. I know Amazon has it, and if it isn’t already, it should be showing up on other retailers soon.

I don’t want to gobble up too much time here, so I’ll wait until the end of to read you the book description and share some reviews from a few people who have already read the book and who truly gave me the confidence to go ahead with the publication of this novel. So, more on that later. And of course, whenever you’re ready to go do some book shopping, the links and details you need are going to be in the show notes.

A Quick Thank You

And one quick bit of thanks goes out to Jonathon, aka “Jonny”, Pongratz who has been enthusiastically commenting on and sharing the show on his own Jaunts & Haunts blog. 

He’s also been tossing stars around like a Hollywood sidewalk designer with all the reviews he’s been doing on my stories lately. And if you want to see those reviews, the link to his website will be in the show notes. And just as a free bit of “thank you” advertising, Jonny has also just released his own new novel. It’s called Reaper: Aftermath, and you’ll find out all about it if you head to his website at JonathonPongratz.com

Okay, so we have a show to get to.

St. Valentine – Who Are You??

As you might know, Valentine’s Day — besides celebrating all things chocolate — is celebrated in honor of St. Valentine. But who in the world is this guy and what does he have to do with the 14th of February, or with sending gooey sweet cards to your loved ones?

Well, no one really knows. Okay, that’s not exactly true, but in the book that records all things saintly there are three people, and in some accounts seven people, who all fit the bill for being St. Valentine. So what we end up with is kind of a hodge podge of various stories blending into one person over the years. And there really are a lot of bits and bobs to all the Valentine histories, but like a cheap bottle of red wine, I’m going with the blend because it’s far less confusing. 

So our mash up guy had the family name of Valens, which means worthy, and his name got Romanized into Valentinius, or Valentinus, whichever you prefer. I like Valentinius, and it’s my podcast, so that’s what you’re going to get. 

Valentine Proves His Stuff

Valentinius was a Christian priest or possibly a bishop in the third century common era. And this was before Emperor Constantine went and converted all the Romans to Christianity, so being a Christian was still something that was looked down upon by the Roman powers that be. And by looked down upon, I mean you were likely to get sent to the lions if you got a bit too mouthy about your faith.

Since this new religion wasn’t very well tolerated, Valentinius was arrested for trying to spread the word, or for marrying couples in the Christian tradition, again, whichever story you prefer. It’s kind of a choose your own adventure of religious history, right?

Valentinius was put under house arrest in the home of Judge Asterius (who may or may not have had a chubby friend named Obelixius, and if you don’t get that joke, go look up some Belgian comics). Anyway, one day Valentinius and the judge get chatting about religion, as you do. The judge said, “If your god is really so great, and if you believe in him so damn much, then make my blind daughter see again and I’ll do whatever your Christ-loving heart desires.” That’s not an exact quote, by the way.

So of course, voila! Valentinius makes the blind girl see, the judge converts to Christianity and sets all his Christian inmates free, including Valentinius. Not seeing what a lucky break he’s gotten, Valentinius goes back to his rebellious ways and starts trying to convert people again. 

Valentine Doesn’t Learn

The emperor is having nothing to do with this and arrests Valentinius again. But as with the judge, the two get to talking. These people seem to have a lot of conversations with their prisoners. Anyway, the emperor finds out he kind of likes this Valentinius guy. It’s nearly a bromance in the making when Valentinius commits a huge Roman ruler faux pas and tries to convert the emperor. The emperor is like, “Nope, not gonna do it” and sentences Valentinius to be beaten and beheaded. 

And, as the legend goes, while Valentinius is waiting for his execution, he makes friends, or possibly more than friends, with the jailor’s daughter. On the night before hs death, he writes her a note thanking her for her kindness and signs it: Your Valentine. But you know, in Latin. 

The Valentine Scandal

Or so the story goes.

See, none of the records have Valentinius writing that infamous note, and it’s likely it was just an embellishment added to his tale in the 18th century. Which I would just bet is when the greeting card industry was looking for a new marketing scheme.

Anyway, so Valentinius was executed on the 14th of February 269 common era. He was made a saint, I think in 496, if I’m reading things right, but his saint’s day, that would be Valentine’s Day, really wasn’t seen as much more than any other holy day for at least another 500 years. Because it’s not until some time around the years 1100 to 1200 that the day becomes a time to celebrate love and to give your sweetheart a token of our affection…including love letters…because, you know, there were no Hallmark stores yet.

And just as a little side note, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Valentine’s Day is celebrated on the 6th of July, so if you forgot to get your sweetie something special this Valentine’s Day, you can try to point out that you’re really not late, but do so at your own risk because that excuse might earn you a smack upside the head.

Famous Love Letters

This whole Valentine and his letters thing got me wondering about famous historical love letters, and this did end up being a fun bit of research. I know this isn’t exactly book-related, but as I said, it is a form of writing and so it does fit with the theme of the podcast.

And there were a ton of examples of famous love letters, but I’ll just run through a handful, then we’ll get to the gushiest, the most dramatic one, which is also the oldest love letter written in English.

One of the oldest love letters is actually in the Bible. I know, this is turning into a very religious epidote, but I promise it stops soon. So this is the Song of Solomon and that book of the Bible is basically just one long, and at times pretty sexy, love poem. And it is pretty gushy.

“Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.”

Which is far better than thinking about all those stinky animals on Noah’s Ark.

Alright, so of course, amongst the famous couples of the world we have Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon was gobsmacked by Jo the moment he saw her, and as a young lieutenant he wrote to her obsessively. For her part, she barely replied. Quite the coquette our Josephine!

In one letter he writes,

“A few days ago I thought I loved you; but since I last saw you I feel I love you a thousand times more… I beg you, let me see some of your faults: be less beautiful, less graceful, less kind, less good…”

Yeah Jo, if you could just suck a little bit, I wouldn’t be tormented by loving you. Nah, he’d probably love her all the more.

A very famous love letter, made even more famous by a movie starring Gary Oldman is Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved letter. We still don’t know who he wrote it to, but man, this guy had it bad…He writes,

“I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. What longing in tears for you — You — my Life — my All — farewell. Oh, go on loving me — never doubt the faithfullest heart

Of your beloved, L

Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours.”

Sorry, is it getting warm in here?

The Oldest Love Letter in English

So the oldest love letter written in English was in fact a Valentines’ Day letter, written in 1477. It comes from a collection of correspondences of the Paston family, and the whole collection gives a really good glimpse into life at that time. And in the show notes, I’ll include a link so you can see the actual letter itself.

It’s written by Margery Brews to John Paston, who is her fiancé. And this letter, so gushy, I wonder if Margery might not be embarrassed that we’re reading it to this day. In the letter it seems like something has come up that maybe her dad isn’t cool with the engagement, but Margery will never give up on her John. 

She’s actually a little scary. 

She writes, and I’m pretty sure this is how she would have said all this..

Unto my right well-beloved Valentine John Paston, squire, I am not in good health of body nor of heart, nor shall I be till I hear from you. For there knows no creature what pain that I endure, And even on the pain of death I would reveal no more. 

And then she goes on saying her mom has been pleading their case, but she’s been getting nowhere for her efforts. But this won’t deter our Marge.

But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore. For even if you had not half the livelihood that you have… I would not forsake you. 

So basically, even if he’s poor, shed still want him. Then, even though she says her friends have tried to dissuade her from making this promise she swears…

And if you command me to keep me true wherever I go, indeed I will do all my might you to love and never anyone else. My heart me bids evermore to love you truly over all earthly things. 

Finally and quite dramatically, she concludes…

And if they be never so angry, I beseech you that this bill be not seen by any non-earthly creature save only yourself. And this letter was written at Topcroft with full heavy heart.

Yeah, I don’t know John, she sounds a bit clingy…just saying.

Anyway, that is it for love letters, one of the sappiest but also most endearing forms of writing that anyone can do…if they dare!

Reviews are Love Letters to Authors

Alright, as promised, it’s time for more about my book release. And speaking of love letters, I just have to give a big hunk of love to my early readers. As you know from earlier episodes, I had lost a lot of confidence in The Undead Mr. Tenpenny, but I pushed through and sent it out to some brave readers. 

And they didn’t hate it! In fact they’ve loved the humor, the characters, and the story line, and they really gave me the final push to actually release the book. Basically, those reviews were more meaningful than any love letter. So, if you ever think a review doesn’t matter, think again and leave that review!

The Undead Mr. Tenpenny Description

Okay, here’s the description for The Undead Mr Tenpenny, there’s also links in the show notes to some videos to celebrate the book launch – you know, just in case you want to see the face behind the voice, and of course there’s links to do a bit of book shopping.

Okay, so the tagline is

Work at a funeral home can be mundane. Until you accidentally start bringing the dead back to life.

And the description reads,

Cassie Black works at a funeral home. She’s used to all manner of dead bodies. What she’s not used to is them waking up. Which they seem to be doing on a disturbingly regular basis lately.

Just when Cassie believes she has the problem under control, the recently-deceased Busby Tenpenny insists he’s been murdered and claims Cassie might be responsible thanks to a wicked brand of magic she’s been exposed to. The only way for Cassie to get her life back to normal is to tame her magic and uncover Mr. Tenpenny’s true killer.

Simple right? Of course not. Because while Cassie works on getting her newly-acquired magic sorted, she’s blowing up kitchens, angering an entire magical community, and discovering her past is more closely tied to Busby Tenpenny than she could have ever imagined.

If you like contemporary fantasy with snarky humor, unforgettable characters, and paranormal mystery such as Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, you’ll find it hard to pry yourself away from this first book of the Cassie Black Trilogy.

A Little Praise from Early Readers

And I’ll just quote a few of those reviewer love letters before I let you go…

The Undead Mr. Tenpenny is a clever, hilarious romp through a new magical universe that can be accessed through the closet of a hole-in-the-wall apartment in Portland, Oregon.

—Sarah Angleton, author of Gentleman of Misfortune

When I saw the book title…my first thought was, “another zombie apocalypse”. A wonderful surprise greeted me with an entertaining story that was written with humor, a great story line and new twist on the undead.

—J. Tate, Eugene Reviewer

…suffused with dark humor and witty dialogue, of the sort that Painter excels at…a fun read for anyone who enjoys fast-paced, somewhat snarky, somewhat twisted, fantasy adventures.

—Berthold Gambrel, author of Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival

Wow and wow again! I absolutely loved this book! You get such a feel for the characters and the story is so fast paced you don’t want to put it down.

—Goodreads Reviewer

Outro

Okay my book loving friends, that’s it for this love-filled episode. If you enjoyed the show, I’d love it if you shared it with just one other person, and if you’d like to show your support, please go get a copy of The Undead Mr. Tenpenny from your favorite retailer! Have a great couple weeks, and I will hoot at you next time.

Credits

The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, copyright 2021 all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com

Book History, Episodes

22. The Devil’s in the Details

 

Back in the day, even printing a Bible required getting in league with the devil…printer devils, that is. Discover the legends and lores in this re-released and re-mastered version of a Book Owl classic…you know, back when I was beyond nervous when facing the microphone!

(This is a re-release of Episode 2 – Making a Deal with the Devil). There’s a new intro and the audio has been re-processed.)

Like what you hear?

The (Rough) Transcript

New Intro

(Not transcribed, but let’s just say I’ve been drowning in writing chores and didn’t have time to research, write, record, and edit a new episode this week. I will be back in a couple weeks with a new episode – hopefully – and a special announcement.)

Old Intro

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

So, these days you can click a button and have most any book printed on demand and in your hands in days, but it wasn’t always so quick and easy. And no, I’m not referring tot the days when you actually had to get off your butt and go to the bookstore and buy a book.

It wasn’t all that long ago that took a lot of effort to make a book. In fact, if you wanted a book printed you might even have had to make a deal with the devil….even if that book was a bible.

Sponsor Break

Before we delve into this devilish episode it’s time for a tiny sponsor break. I know, I know, no one likes ads, but this will be quick and painless. Podcasts aren’t the cheapest things to run. There’s hosting costs, equipment, and let me tell you, they take a lot of time. So, if you like what you’re hearing and if you’re able to, you can show your appreciation and support the podcast by visiting the book owl podcast dot com slash support where you’ll find several super inexpensive ways to help keep the show running.

Okay, that wasn’t so bad, was it. Now, let’s get on with the show and the devil really is in the details with this one.

How to Print a Book…Back in the Day

So even though we’re talking about devils, there’s no need to fear for your immortal soul (unless you’ve been very naughty). See back in the day, if you wanted a book or a newspaper, you had no choice…you had to get in league with the devil…a printer’s devil to be exact.

Of course the printing press is an invention worshipped by book nerds and we’ll explore it’s story some other time, but for now just know that up until relatively recently to make a book or newspaper, every single letter and every single space or punctuation mark on every single printed page had to arranged by a human hand…a very deft human hadn’t at that.

Okay, that’s bad enough to imagine, but not only did these someones have to lay down the letters of every word, they also had to do it in reverse so the words once printed would read correctly. So anyone out there complaining about how tricky it can be to format a document in Word, believe me, you’ve got nothing to complain about.

Ooh, Devils!!!

Anyway, as you can imagine, the work of a printer and typesetter was tedious, labor intensive work. But that work would be made a tiny bit easier if you had an assistant. And that assistant was called a printer’s devil.

This was usually a young boy, possibly an apprentice, whose main tasks would be to mix the ink and to fetch the letters as needed and to put the used letters back in the right place. And even though it’s highly likely that there were some serious child labor laws being broken, this wasn’t unskilled labor because these kids had to be somewhat literate in order to fetch the correct letter. Think about it, if you’re typesetting a word like SHOT you certainly don’t want some illiterate rapscallion mixing up your O’s and your I’s.

And there were some famous little devils, including Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and John Kellogg (yes, Mr Cornflakes and healthy living himself).

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part One

Alright none who can remember their grade school days on the playground know that little boys can be hellions, but why were these particular lads called devils?

There’s actually no clear answer on this, which of course means a slew of tales have sprouted up to answer it. Some of the tales are downright dull, while others have a wonderful dose of embellishment to them.

So the most boring explanation says that the fingers of these boys would be stained black from the ink. Since Satan is the lord of darkness, the dark fingers lead people to call the kids devils. Told you that was boring. Also, I would imagine the typesetters themselves had stained fingers as well, so the explanation also falls flat on my logic meter.

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part Two

The second tale is slightly more interesting and provides a nice little play on words. Okay, so the little letters that had to be arranged were cast onto tiny pieces metal. If you’ve seen how small the print is on old timey newspapers, you’ll get an idea of just how tiny those metal pieces were.

Anyway, this metal wasn’t titanium or anything and after so many uses the raised letters would wear down and anything printed using those letters would make the reader wonder if they’d developed sudden onset glaucoma.

Instead of tormenting their customers with having to needlessly visit the eye doctor, although that could have been a good side swindle, the worn type was tossed into a box so the metal could be melted down and re-cast. That box was called a hellbox and since it was these kids tossing things into the hellbox, they earned the name devils.

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part Three (My Favorite)

That’s not a bad behind the name story, but possibly my favorite one even though it’s a bit of a stretch starts with a partnership gone bad.

So Mr Printing Press himself, Johannes Gutenberg, had a business partner named Johann FUST – and no, I don’t know if you were required to be named John to work in the printing business. After his invention started revolutionizing the world, Big G started getting a big head. FUST got annoyed with Gutenberg’s attitude so he up and left one day. And he didn’t leave empty handed…he took all the machinery.

Right around this time the French court of Louis XI needed some new bibles. FUST nabbed up the commission. He also nabbed a fair amount of extra money for this commission because he told the king and all the king’s men that the bibles would be hand copied. This was how books were made before the printing press, and because it took a lot more work, it raised the price of each book.

After a reasonable amount of time FUST delivered the books…probably with a guilty twitch to his ink-stained fingers.

So, you know how when you come home with new books from the library or bookstore and you have to thumb through all of them? Well, Louis who must have a huge book nerd, did the same thing. As he was flipping and enjoying that new book smell, Louis noticed all the bibles were eerily similar. Too similar. After all, hand copying is often accompanied with transcription errors, ink blotches, and other problems.

But all these bibles were the exact same.

Now you’re probably thinking an advisor should go up to Louis and say that, “Hey we got this guy FUST who used to work with that printer guy Gutenberg, maybe he printed these bibles.” But that didn’t happen. I mean, this was the king after all and you don’t go around telling the king he got duped. So, the only excuse for such perfection had to have been that the devil had his hand in the bibles’ creation. FUST who might have only been accused of fraud ended up being jailed for witchcraft…and I bet Gutenberg was laughing the whole time.

Anyway, in a very roundabout way, this supposedly led to the term printer’s devils.

What’s in a Demonic Name, Part Four (The Most Logical)

There’s a fourth and final story, one that combines legend with logic, and to me this one makes the most sense.

When printing presses started to spread out across Europe the printers decided they needed their own patron demon ( because, who doesn’t, right?). His name was Titivillus. This wasn’t a newbie on the demon block. He’d been the patron demon of scribes and was the go-to demon to blame when a scribe made a mistake in his manuscript copying. Talk about blame shifting.

In the printing world, Titivillus was a trickster who would sneak in and, when no one was looking, rearrange the type leading to misspelled words…which is an excuse I’m going to start using in my own books and newsletters! Since the assistants were the ones bringing the letters, those kids must be in league with this demon and therefore they earned the name of printers devils.

Not bad, right?

Exorcists Need Not Apply

Anyway, wherever their name came from, printers devils were hard working little lads well into the early 1900s. As different methods of setting type and more efficient ways of printing evolved, the need for devils declined and soon devils were gone from the print shop altogether.

And not one single exorcist was needed.

You Want One More, Don’t You?

So that’s it for printer’s devils. Or is it? With every episode I provide my newsletter recipients some extra tidbit related to the show. And with this episode, they’ll be getting one more printer devil story straight from 1960s television. If you’re not already part of the flock, sign up for The Book Owl Podcast Newsletter at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact.

Update Time

Okay, one quick update to wrap things up. When I was first planning out this podcast, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my favorite shows and release episodes every single week. Now, if you saw the list of topics I’ve got jotted down in Ye Olde Podcast Notebook, you’d know I have plenty of material to do just that. What I don’t have is the time.

My primary focus, shall we say my day job, is writing and to keep churning out books, I’d basically have to give up on sleeping, eating, and cleaning out the guinea pig cages to be able to write, record, and edit a podcast episode every week. Hopefully, once I get the hang of all this podcasting busy work, I’ll be able to do weekly shows, but for now and probably for at least the first couple months, I’m going to keep myself from going bonkers by only doing biweekly shows which will appear every other Thursday.

Thanks and See You Later

Thanks for listening everyone. If you enjoyed this episode I’d love it if you could leave a review or simply tell someone about the show. If you do want to leave a review, you can do that in your favorite podcast app or on Podchaser, the IMDB of podcasts and I’ll toss a link to that in the show notes. Or, feel free to email me at the book owl podcast dot com slash contact. And, like I said, if you want to get even more out of each episode, be sure to subscribe to the book owl podcast newsletter on that same page.

Again, thanks for listening and I will hoot at you next time!

Credits

The Book Owl Podcast is a production of Daisy Dog Media, copyright 2021 all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com

Episodes, Literacy

21. Getting a Feel for Braille

 

Happy Braille Literacy Month, everyone! We almost missed out on the celebrations, but The Book Owl discovered this important holiday just in time. In this episode discover what workshop accidents and Napoleon have to do with the history of one of the most intriguing forms of reading and writing.

Links Mentioned in This Episode

Like what you hear?

Transcript (or Roughly So)

Intro, Part One

Hey everyone, this is Tammie Painter and you’re listening to the Book Owl Podcast, the podcast where I entertain your inner book nerd with tales of quirky books and literary lore.

So this time around we’re looking at a special type of reading. Or rather, we’re not going to look at it, we’re going to get a feel for it. Because this type of reading isn’t done with the eyes. It’s not done with the ears. It’s done with the fingertips. And in some ways, we have Napoleon to thank for it.

Cheesy Sales Pitch

But before we jump into that I just have one quick reminder. If you’re listening to this episode on the day of its release, that would be 28 January 2021, or soon after, you have just a couple days left to grab the first box set of my historical fantasy series The Osteria Chronicles for a mere 99c.

This set includes The Trials of Hercules, The Voyage of Heroes, and The Maze of Minos and the sale ends on the 31st, so don’t dilly dally if you want to nab this deal. And of course, the links you need will be in the show notes.

Alright, onto the episode.

Intro, Part Two

So Happy Braille Literacy Month, everyone! That’s right, January is all about bringing awareness to this fascinating form of reading and writing. Why January? Well, because the creator of braille, Louis Braille (which I’m just going to say braille from now on so you don’t have to endure my horrible French) was born on 4 January 1809. 

Oh, and if you really want to get your braille celebrations going, you should have also celebrated World Braille Day which took place earlier in the month on Louis’s birthday. What? You missed it? Well, just be sure to mark it on your calendar for next year because I think once you hear how braille came to be, and the struggle it took to get it adopted, you might have a little more appreciation for it.

Warning

Now before we get too far into this episode, I’m going to say I’m not really great on my politically correct terms for things, so I will be using the word “blind” when referring to people who can’t see well or can’t see at all. So forewarning if that sort of thing offends you.

Okay, let’s get into this dotty madness.

A Quick Bit About Braille

I’m sure most listeners have come across braille writing some time in their lives. Of course I’m a big old word nerd, so I’ve always been fascinated by it and can’t resist running my fingers over it when ever I find a plaque, or a directory, or some museum signage that has a braille option. I simply can’t fathom how a person’s fingers interpret those dots into words, and when I can’t figure something out, it intrigues me even more.

But just in case you don’t have clue what braille is, it’s a block of raised dots that represent letters or groups of letters or sometimes entire words that are commonly used such as the, and, but, and that sort of thing.

The reader reads left to right, typically by running both index fingers over the dots. And each of these blocks consists of six dots that are arranged in two columns with three dots in each column, so imagine how the number six looks on dice. The letter or letter grouping then depends on which dots in that block are raised and which aren’t.

And braille isn’t its own language, its more of a translation. Which means it basically takes the letters and words of say English or French or German and transcribes them into these blocks of dots that can be read with your English, French, or German fingertips

And just because I was curious, I looked up the reading speed of braille reading versus eyeball reading and the average eyeball reader reads about 200 words a minute. Braille readers average about 125 words a minute, but some can reach speeds of 200 words a minute. Which again, blows my mind that your fingers can read that quickly.

But while all that’s interesting, the story of how braille came about is far more interesting. And it’s also where we come back to Napoleon.

Getting Dotty with Napoleon

So back in the early 1800s this little Corsican guy named Napoleon had made himself ruler of France. France is a pretty darn big country, but he wanted to expand his empire so he was going around starting fights with his neighbors. You know the type, right?

Well, Napoleon wanted to maintain the element of surprise, so he wanted his soldiers to be able to communicate at night so they could plan their maneuvers and be kept alert of any trouble from the enemy.

Trouble was, the enemies were no idiots. They were keeping an eye on Napoleon’s men. When a French soldier received a note, he’d light a lamp to see what it said and then, blam! The enemy sharpshooters would see the light, shoot in that direction, and well let’s just say it’s hard to follow orders or plan an attack when you die trying to read those orders or attack plans.

And here I picture Napoleon having a bit of a temper tantrum, kind of like the Napoleon character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure when he’s bowling and he’s like Merde! Merde! Merde!. Luckily, unlike the Bill & Ted Napoleon, the real life Napoleon had Charles Babier working for him.

Babier came up with a system of what he called night writing. This consisted of a 12-dot block with raised dots to correspond to each letter or phonetic sound. And I think the 12 dots were in two columns, I can’t recall. 

It kind of worked, but it was slow going because people’s fingertips just couldn’t feel all the dots at once. Imagine as you’re reading, scanning a word, then having to go back over each letter one by one to understand what that word is and you’ll start to understand why Babier’s system worked, but was a painfully slow way to read more than just a quick missive.

But let’s pop over to another area of France.

You’ll Put Your Eye Out, Kid

Louis Braille was born in Coupvray, France, on 4 January 1809. And a little warning for anyone who is squeamish, you might want to fast forward about 30 seconds.

Louis’s dad was a leatherworker and little Louis liked to hang out with papa in his workshop, and he even likes to try his own hand at working the leather.

One day when Louis is about three or four, papa isn’t paying attention as Louis is trying to use an awl to poke a hole in a scrap of leather. And Louis is getting into it, he’s down close and really scrutinizing his efforts. Well, the awl slips and pierces Louis in the eye. Yeah, I know. Cringe!!

A doctor is called, the wound is bound, but infection sets in and ends up spreading to his good eye, so he ends up blind in both eyes. And I bet Louis’s mom had a thing or two to say to Louis’s dad about child minding.

So back then it would have been easy to write Louis off as being an invalid who won’t amount to anything, But hoorah for mom because she treats Louis as if he’s no different than her other kids. And Louis thrives in the environment she creates for him. He becomes known for being a good pupil and for being exceptionally bright, so he ends up winning a scholarship to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth. And I think this is when he was about 9 or 10 years old.

An Understanding Teacher

At the Royal Institute was an instructor named Valentin Hauy, who also founded the school. Hauy wasn’t blind, but he did understand the need to get his students reading. He came up with a system where he basically kept your same 26 Latin letters and raised them on the page using heavy paper that was embossed with the letters. The kids could read the books, but it was a slow way to read.

Also, to create just one of these books was really time-consuming and expensive and the books themselves were fragile and pretty damn huge just to fit all the test in. As such, the school only had three of them, but Louis read these books over and over. And another problem with hay’s system was, to make the books required these specialized copper dohickies to emboss the letters onto the paper, so it wasn’t convenient to get the students writing.

The Hauy system was flawed, but is did prove that touch could be used to read long passages of text, not just quick notes. He referred to it as “talking to the fingers with the language of the eye.”

Hauy, although his system wasn’t the greatest, was really a superstar for his students, especially gifted ones like Louis. Hauy even cut out leather templates of the letters of the alphabet. Louis would then take these and trace around them to write letters home every week. Which, wow, that’s some dedication to writing to your mom and I bet she really appreciated it.

A Fortuitous Visit

And it’s at the Royal Institute where Louis and Charles Babier’s stories come together. See, in 1821 or possibly 1820 — my sources were a bit unclear on exactly which because one said Louis was 11, which would be 1820, others say Babier showed up in 1821. Either way, Babier shows up at the Royal Institute to show off his night writing thingamajig, thinking it might be handy for the students, even though it was a clumsy system to use.

Louis, who had already been tinkering with his own system of writing for the blind, immediately recognizes the possibilities of Babier’s system and pinpointed the problems such as it being too complex for the human finger and that each block should represent a letter or group of letters, not a phonetic sound.

Louis sets about to working on how to perfect the dotty writing and in only a few years has cobbled out a functional way of writing and reading for the blind. And it really did work, as is evidenced by its still being used today. And just to show off, Louis also worked out a musical notation system for the blind. You know, in his spare time.

And I have to include this quote form Louis because it really does show off The Book Owl’s own belief in the important of reading and writing.

He said,

“Access to communication in the widest sense is access to knowledge, and that is vitally important for us if we [the blind] are not to go on being despised or patronized by condescending sighted people. We do not need pity, nor do we need to be reminded we are vulnerable. We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

Attitude Problem

By 1833, Louis has moved on from being a student at the Royal Institute to being a teacher there, instructing students in geometry, algebra, and history, while also playing the cello and the organ in churches across France. And you would think his system of writing and reading would have been snatched up and adopted by the Royal Institute without question.

Nope.

See, Hauy died in 1822 and his successor seemed to have the stereotypically French stubbornness against any type of change. He refused to alter any aspect of how the school operated, its course material, and most definitely not how its students would read and write. In fact, this guy was so stubborn, he actually fired another teacher, not Louis, for having a history book translated into braille. Sheesh!

But even though the school refused to adopt it, braille was spreading across France and by the 1880s would be embraced by much of the world. 

Short-Lived Genius

Unfortunately, although brilliant and talented, Louis wasn’t terribly healthy. When he was 40, he’d already been suffering an illness, possibly tuberculosis, for over a decade, and he had to retire. And in 1852, when he was only 43, he died. 

And still by this point, his system wasn’t being used at the Royal Institute. Finally, the students revolted and demanded Louis’s system be incorporated into the curriculum and voila!

And before we jump into some stats about braille today, Louis’s childhood home in Coupvray is now an official historic building that houses the Braille Museum. I’ll have a link in the show notes that has some information about it, if you want to check it out.

There’s also a large monument in his home town honoring him, and in 1953 on the 100th anniversary of his death Louis’s body was given the honor of being moved to the Pantheon in Paris. But, and I don’t know if this is touching or creepy, as a symbolic gesture, they left his hands buried in Coupvray. Yeah, make of that what you will.

So What About Braille Today

Well, I won’t go into all the details, but there has been a long progression of braille typewriters, with the first one being invented in 1892. But the style that really stuck around was developed in 1951 by David Abraham who was a woodworking teacher at the Perkins School for the Blind. It became known as the Perkins Brailler and it was so well-designed that the only real changes to this style of braille writing machine was to make it quieter and more portable.

Because of these writers, braille is more accessible than ever and you’d think it would be widely taught and used and all that. Well, unfortunately, funding for schools means braille is being taught less and less and braille literacy is plummeting, which is really sad because it is such a cool form of writing, and who knows, with as bad as my eyes are, I may need it one day.

So here’s the stats about all this. In 1960 about half of legally blind kids could read braille. And these numbers are for the US. In 2015, that number fell to only 9 percent. And some of this, as I mentioned has to do with schools no longer teaching braille, or teaching it far less. But there’s also the advent of screen readers and text-to-speech technology. 

But some of it also has to do with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which pretty much shut down schools for the blind and said the blind students should be educated in public schools, again, without providing extra resources or funding for that move or giving the students the specialized reading skills they might find handy.

The problem with braille illiteracy is, just like any illiteracy, we see a direct correlation between braille literacy and employment rates among blind people. Even though blind people can read paper or screen text with text-to-speech software, people who only read this way have a high rate of unemployment compared to those who read braille as well. Basically, if you’re blind and you’re braille illiterate, you’re statistically far more likely to be unemployed than a blind person who can read braille.

And of course, as with people who aren’t blind, this unemployment then trickles down to overall health and well-being, and is just no good for anyone. And for those of you who get the book owl podcast newsletter, I’ll toss the actual numbers in your bonus content this time around.

So with that go celebrate these last few days of Braille Literacy Month full of the knowledge that reading is super important but so is teaching people to read in the way that’s going to give them the best jump on life.

Updates

And speaking of reading, it’s time for updates. I know, weird transition. The Undead Mr Tenpenny is now in the hands of a fair number of early reviewers. And let me just say I am nervous! I’m literally having nightmares about this. Which is really crazy because if you asked me six months ago about this book I would have gone on and on about how much I loved it, how fun I thought it was, how much I thought it was going to be one of my best sellers. 

Now, after the last couple of my own read throughs, doubts finally nabbed hold. And they are not letting go! I feel like the writing is just rambling and makes no sense. I feel like all the effort I put in to setting a few things up in this first book, which don’t get explained until the second book, are going to leave readers confused and annoyed, and I’m just a basket case over the whole story, my writing style, and arghhh! And now I have to sit back and wait for the book to get torn apart by these early reviewers…I need wine. Lots of wine.

Outro

Okay my book loving friends, that’s it for this dotty episode. If you enjoyed the show, I’d love it if you shared it with just one other person. Have a great couple weeks, and I will hoot at you next time.

Credits

The book owl podcast is a production of daisy dog media, copyright 2021, all rights reserved. The theme music was composed by Kevin Macleod. Audio processing by Auphonic.com