The World’s Oldest Multicolor Book, a 1633 Chinese Calligraphy & Painting Manual, Now Digitized and Put Online

We think of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press (circa 1440) to have begun the era of the printed book, since his invention allowed for mass production of books on a scale unheard of before. But we must date the invention of printing itself much earlier—nearly 600 years earlier—to the Chinese method of xylography, a form of woodblock printing. Also used in Japan and Korea, this elegant method allowed for the reproduction of hundreds of books from the 9th century to the time of Gutenberg, most of them Buddhist texts created by monks. In the 11th century, writes Elizabeth Palermo at Live Science, a Chinese peasant named Bi Sheng (Pi Sheng) developed the world’s first movable type.” The technology may have also arisen independently in the 14th century Yuan Dynasty and in Korea around the same time.

Despite these innovations, xylography remained the primary method of printing in Asia. The “daunting task” of casting the thousands of characters in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean “may have made woodblocks seem like a more efficient option for printing these languages.” This still-labor-intensive process produced books and illustrations for several centuries, a good many of them incredible works of art in their own right. In 1633, a Chinese printer named Hu Zhengyan invented a technique known as douban, a form of polychrome xylography that led to the creation of the world’s oldest multicolor printed book, Shi zhu zhai shu hua pu (Manual of Calligraphy and Painting), containing, perhaps, writes Cambridge University Library, “the most beautiful set of prints ever made.” And now thanks to Cambridge, the manual has been carefully digitized and made available online.

Published by Hu Zhengyan’s Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjiang, this manual for teachers contains 138 pages of multicolor prints by fifty different artists and calligraphers and 250 pages of accompanying text. “The method” that produced the stunning artifact “involves the use of multiple printing blocks which successively apply different coloured inks to the paper to reproduce the effect of watercolour painting.” Kept untouched in Cambridge’s “most secure vaults,” the book was unsealed for the first time just a couple years ago. “What surprised us,” remarked Charles Aylmer, head of the Library’s Chinese Department, “was the amazing freshness of the images, as if they had never been looked at for over 300 years.”

The 17th century copy is “unique in being complete, in perfect condition and in its original binding.” (Another, incomplete, copy was acquired in 2014 by the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.) The book contains many “detailed instructions on brush techniques,” writes CNN, “but its phenomenal beauty has meant from the outset that it has held a greater position” than other such manuals. Like another gorgeous multicolor painting textbook, the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, made in 1679, this text had a significant impact on the arts in both China and Japan, “where it inspired a whole new branch of printing.”

Considered “one of the most historically and artistically important illustrated books of 17th century Chinese woodblock art,” notes Liesl Bradner at the L.A. Times, Hu Zhengyan’s text reflects a time when literacy levels were rising. Along with them came “increasing consumer demand for the printed word and images, which ushered in a golden era of Chinese pictorial painting.” You can page through digital scans of the entire book, from cover to cover, at the University of Cambridge’s Digital Library. Note: There are 388 pages in total. Click on the arrows at the top of this page to move through the text.

via MetaFilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hunter S. Thompson Chillingly Predicts the Future, Telling Studs Terkel About the Coming Revenge of the Economically & Technologically “Obsolete” (1967)

Image  via Wikimedia Commons

Half a century ago, Hunter S. Thompson got his big journalistic break with a book called Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. In it he provided a curious and fearful public with a look into the inner workings of one of the most outwardly menacing social movements of the day, based on knowledge gained not by merely observing the Hell's Angels but by getting on a hog and spending a year as a quasi-member himself. This gave him opportunity both to develop what would become his style of "gonzo journalism" in the long form and to catch an early glimpse of bigger trouble ahead in America.

"To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old 'individualist' tradition 'that made this country great' is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are," Thompson writes in that book, calling them "the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment... and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a sort of isolated oddity" destined for extinction.

Studs Terkel, after reading that passage out loud in a 1967 interview with Thompson, calls it "the key" to the entire book. "Here we have technology, we have the computer, we have labor-saving devices," he says to Thompson, but we also "have the need for more and more college education for almost any kind of job, and we have this tremendous mass of young who find themselves obsolete." But Thompson replies that the real consequences have only started to manifest: "The people who are being left out and put behind won't be obvious for years. Christ only knows what'll happen in, say, 1985 — a million Hell's Angels. They won't be wearing the colors; they'll be people who are just looking for vengeance because they've been left behind."

The Angels, wrote Susan McWilliams in a much-circulated Nation piece late last year, "were clunky and outclassed and scorned, just like the Harley-Davidsons they chose to drive." And "just as there was no rational way to defend Harleys against foreign-made choppers, the Angels saw no rational grounds on which to defend their own skills or loyalties against the emerging new world order of the late 20th century." The result? An "ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal."

Six years later, Terkel invited Thompson back into his studio for another interview that followed straight on from the first. Ostensibly there to talk about Thompson's book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 (which followed his best-known work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), the two, having cracked open a beer, get into what the Studs Terkel Radio Archive blog describes as "the sense of surrealism in 'real' life," which becomes "a very serious conversation about the direction in which our country was heading. After Thompson recounted his experience of talking to Richard Nixon about football" — the only subject permitted — "Studs responds, 'Isn’t this what we’re faced with now? … That fantasy and fact become one.'"

What's a reporter to do in such an environment? Terkel seems to see in Thompson the perfect kind of "subjective" journalist, one "who can make literal what is psychic in our lives," for a time that has lost its own objectivity. "Has there ever been any such thing as objective journalism?" he asks. "It's probably the highest kind of journalism, if you can do it." Thompson replies. "Nobody I know has ever done it, and I don't have time to learn it." But the distinctive suite of journalistic skills he did possess primed him to perceive certain realities — and perceive them with a distinctive vividness — that have only become more real in the decades since. What, for instance, did he learn from covering the 1972 presidential campaign? "Power corrupts… but it’s also a fantastic high."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Stream a 24 Hour Playlist of Charles Dickens Stories, Featuring Classic Recordings by Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles & More

Children, cast off your fingerless mitts and gather round the mercifully cold hearth for some old timey, seasonally inappropriate listening.

Spotify has pulled together 67 Charles Dickens audio classics into a massive playlist for your summertime listening enjoyment–nearly 24 hours worth. That should last the long cross-country drive to see grandma.

Big gorillas like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations figure prominently. Sir Laurence Olivier, preparing to step into the part of Mr. Micawber, calls David Copperfield “a novel which I think must be almost the most famous ever written.”

Still true half a century later? Immaterial. Olivier's use of "I think" and "almost" leaves room enough for a sort of genial, general agreement.

Some of the introductions give unintentionally hilarious added value, such as host Frank Craven’s attempt to contextualize a Lux Radio Theater presentation starring Orson Welles as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities excerpt. The author’s work was often published in serial form, he tells listeners:

Records tell us of how crowds thronged the wards of New York City to receive news of their favorite heroine or hero. For already, the names of Dickens’ characters were household words, as much, I imagine, as Lux Toilet Soap is a household word throughout America today, and for very much the same reason–the ability to find approval among people of all kinds of ages and every walk of life, not only among women who are anxious to preserve their loveliness but with every member of the family, young and old. Lux Toilet Soap is quick to make friends and to keep them. 

How disappointed the sponsors must’ve been that in the whole of A Tale of Two Cities, there’s not a single reference to soap. (For the record, Oliver Twist has one and David Copperfield has two…)

Lesser known treats include Emlyn Williams, a Welsh actor who spent three decades performing as Dickens in a touring solo show, reading “Mr. Chops,” a tale of a circus dwarf, ill used by society. Dickens himself performed the story on his popular lecture tours. More recently actor Simon Callow mined it for a one man show. Sturdy material.

The 24-hour playlist (the first one above) will be added to our list of Free Audio Books. If you need to download Spotify's free software, grab it here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An 8-Hour Marathon Reading of 500 Emily Dickinson Poems

It’s unlikely that reclusive poet Emily Dickinson would have wanted much fuss made over her birthday while still alive to celebrate it.

But with the lady safely ensconced in Amherst’s West Cemetery’s plot 53 for more than a century, fans can observe the day in the manner they see fit.

The Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center threw in with the Folger Library in celebration of her 184th, inviting poetry lovers to the free marathon reading of her work, above (and below).

Poet Eleanor Heginbotham cited Dickinson’s letter to her editor, abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson–“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?”–before priming the breakfast crowd on what they should expect from the 8 hour marathon:

We’re just going to have a day with no discussion beyond… And it will be frustrating that we can't ask questions, we can't stop and say, "Oh, my goodness.  Let's do that one over again."  We're just going to read and read and read.  And from this moment on, the voice of Emily Dickinson, through those of you in this room, that's the only voice we're going to hear, and won't that be fun?

Yes, though you may want to pack a nutritious snack to keep your energy up. The reading slots were secured by means of an online sign up sheet, and while such egalitarianism is laudable, it does not necessarily confer performance chops on the inexperienced.

Naturally, there are stand outs.

Marianne Noble, Associate Professor of Literature at American University, is a highlight with Poem 75, (2:36:40, above). Her Emily Rocks t-shirt is pretty rad too.

Professor Heginbotham is another sort of treat with Poem 416, 30 minutes and 40 seconds into the second video, below.

All told, the volunteer readers held the podium for 8 hours, making it through 500 poems, slightly less than a third of the poet’s output.

A transcript of the event, with the readers’ names recorded before their chosen verses can be found here.

Single tickets for the Folger's 2017 Emily Dickinson Birthday Tribute, co-hosted by poet and  feminist literary critic, Sandra M. Gilbert, go on sale August 1.

This marathon reading of Dickinson's poems will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Discuss Emily Dickinson with her informally at Pete's Mini Zinefest in Brooklyn this Saturday. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Original Handwritten & Illustrated Manuscript for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1864)

Almost exactly 155 years ago, Lewis Carroll told three young sisters a story. He'd come up with it to enliven a long boat trip up the River Thames, and one of the children aboard, a certain Alice Liddell, enjoyed it so much that she insisted that Carroll commit it to paper. Thus, so the legend has it, was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland born, although Lewis Carroll, then best known as Oxford mathematics tutor Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, hadn't taken up his famous pen name yet, and when he did write down Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it took its first form as Alice's Adventures Under Ground. You can read that handwritten manuscript, complete with illustrations, at the British Library.

Carroll presented the fictional Alice's namesake with the manuscript, according to the British Library, as an early Christmas present in 1864. When his friends encouraged him to publish it, he performed a few revisions, "removing some of the family references included for the amusement of the Liddell children," adding a couple of chapters (the beloved Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter’s tea party being among their new material), and enlisting John Tenniel, a Punch magazine cartoonist known for his illustrations of Aesop's Fables, to create professional art to accompany it. The result, retitled Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, came out in 1865 and has never gone out of print.

Though Tenniel's vivid renderings of Alice and the eccentric characters she encounters have remained definitive, plenty of other artists, including Salvador Dalí and Ralph Steadman, have attempted the surely almost irresistible challenge of illustrating Carroll's highly imaginative story. But today, says Skidmore College professor Catherine J. Golden at The Victorian Web, "critics have reevaluated Carroll’s caricature-style illustration. Carroll expertly intertwines his handwritten text with his pictures to advance the growth motif. His conception of the mouse’s 'tale' shaped like an actual mouse’s 'tail' is an excellent example of emblematic verse."

Tenniel, Golden argues, "essentially refashioned with realism and improved upon many of Carroll’s sketchy or anatomically incorrect illustrations, adding domestic interiors and landscapes that appealed to middle-class consumers of the 1860s." Even "late twentieth-century graphic novel adaptations of Alice in Wonderland recall many of Carroll’s inventive designs as well as those of Tenniel," which gives Carroll's original manuscript more claim to having provided the visual basis, not just the textual one, for the following century and a half of sequels official and unofficial, as well as adaptations, reenvisionings, and reimaginings of this "Christmas gift to a dear child in memory of a summer day."

You can view Carroll’s original manuscript, complete with illustrations, here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Splendid Book Design of the 1946 Edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

decline of roman empire

In 1929, the book publisher George Macy founded The Limited Editions Club (LEC), an imprint tasked with publishing finely illustrated limited editions of classic books. In the years to come, Macy worked with artists like Matisse and Picasso, and photographers like Edward Weston, to produce books with artistic illustrations on their inner pages. And sometimes The Limited Editions Club even turned its design focus to other parts of the book. Take for example this 1946 edition of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and its pretty amazing spine design.

Created by Clarence P. Hornung, the design captures the essence of Gibbon's classic, showing Roman pillars progressively crumbling as your eyes move from Volume 1 to Volume 7. George Macy later called the collection, which also features illustrations by the great 18th-century printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, “the most herculean labor of our career.”

Find more information about this 1946 edition here, or even buy a copy here. Also feel free to download a different edition of Gibbon's classic from our Free eBooks and Free Audio Books collections.

Note: an earlier version of this post appeared on our site in June 2015.

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A Digital Archive of Soviet Children’s Books Goes Online: Browse the Artistic, Ideological Collection (1917-1953)

At both a geographical and historical distance, the Soviet Union doesn't look like much of a place for kids. If you grew up during the Cold War in, say, the United States, you might well have the impression (of which The Simpsons' "Worker and Parasite" remains the defining crystallization) of a gray, harshly utilitarian land behind the Iron Curtain concerned with nothing more whimsical than bread lines and production quotas. But if you grew up in the Soviet Union, at least at one of the right times and in one of the right places, you might feel a now much-discussed nostalgia, not for the economic difficulties of your Soviet childhood, but for the sensibilities of the vanished society you grew up in. An online interactive database called Playing Soviet: The Visual Languages of Early Soviet Children’s Books, 1917-1953 provides a kid's-eye view into the early decades of that society.

A project of the Cotsen Collection at Princeton’s Firestone Library, the archive contains a variety of fully digitized children's books that show one venue in which, amid these years of "Russia’s accelerated violent political, social and cultural evolution," in the words of the database's front page, certain kinds of graphic art could flourish. "The illustration and look of Soviet children’s books was of tantamount importance as a vehicle for practical and concrete information in the new Soviet regime."

This ambitious effort, driven by "directives for a new kind of children’s literature" to be "founded on the assumption that the 'language of images' was immediately comprehensible to the mass reader, far more so than the typed word," brought in a great many artists and designers such as Alexander Deineka, El Lissitzky, and Vladimir Lebedev, tasking them all with creating "imaginative models for Soviet youth in the new languages of Soviet modernism."

Mental Floss' Shaunacy Ferro notes how many of the books "were designed to indoctrinate children into the world of the 'right' way to think about Soviet culture and history," pointing to a volume called How the Revolution Was Victorious, which meant “to ensure the correct interpretation of the anti-governmental coup among the young generation of new Soviet readership.” Some of the other reading material that resulted, like 1930's industrially focused What Are We Building? or the slightly earlier How Senka Ezhik Made a Knife, wears its instructional value on its sleeve (or rather, its cover). Others, like 1925's The Little Octobrist Rascal or that same year's China-set A Cup of Tea, offer higher doses of playfulness mixed in with the ideology.

Playing Soviet also includes the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose Whom Should I Be?, a representative book from the "golden age" of Soviet Children's literature, we featured here on Open Culture earlier this year. Russia Beyond the Headlines' Alexandra Gueza highlights Mayakovsky's  What is Good and What is Bad? ("in which he explains that walking in the rain and thunderstorms is bad, cleaning your teeth is good, fighting with the boys is bad, while studying is good") and October 1917-1918: Heroes and Victims of the Revolution, whose "good guys" include "a worker, a Red Army soldier, a sailor, a seamstress” and whose "bad guys" include "a factory owner, a landowner, a rich farmer, a priest, a merchant." Goodnight Moon it certainly isn't, but then, how many American children's books had to attempt a fundamental reinvention of society?

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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