Three books: disease, a canal, and typesetting races

My work schedule and intensity often prevents me from focusing enough these days to read books, something I find frustrating, and am working to revise. The flip side is that I read thousands of pages of books online this summer and fall in researching articles, and that was absolutely delightful. 

I have completed three books recently, and I'm recommending them all.

Doctor, Doctor, It Hurts When I Read

The first is Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them (2017, end notes, bibliography) by Jennifer Wright. Jen is delightfully funny on Twitter and also a force to be reckoned with in fighting against misogyny and cruelty. Her book on plagues seemed like a funny match to her public personality, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end. I'll say that she tries to ease us in. The book is written in a sometimes aggressively peppy and informal tone, and the book starts out heavily in that style, and then drops down into a more level pace once we understand that the title will be enjoyable and not a recitation of death and blood.

Massively annotated with citations (using end notes, to make the main text readable) and full of bits of history I never knew the full and true story about, Get Well Soon extols a lot of great people, some of whom were forgotten or maligned. She finds mostly heroes and some villains. The chapter on leprosy is particularly moving; on lobotomies, a human plague, a definition I fully agree with after reading it; and on the dancing plague surprising and bizarre. If you wonder how humanity has survived, pick this up. I particularly recommend the subsection in "Bubonic Plague" titled "The Exploding Frog Cure."

Nor the Battle to the Strong

Earlier this year, after discussing with a friend typewriting races—speed competitions for keying in words—I recalled there were words used among typesetters to test speed, too. That led me to the book The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races by Walker Rumble (2003, glossary, end notes, bibliography, index). What the heck?! This monograph helps you understand the life and nature of compositors or typesetters in the 19th century, and led to a number of articles and explorations I made this summer.

Typesetting was a tough job and hadn't changed much since Gutenberg. While everything else in printing sped up, including the manufacture of type, composition largely remained the same, relying on the frailty of humans working as fast as they could. As the century advanced, speed races among typesetters became a fad, and many were held. The fastest compositors were called swifts (and according to one contemporary source I found, fire eaters). But even as these races became popular, the hot-metal Linotype typesetting system became practical and shifted the majority of composition from one-at-a-time hand work to keyboards.

This was an okay change, though: the book notes that in 1850, the average age of death of a printer (including typesetters and pressmen) was 28 years. Horrifying. As the Linotype era started, despite the pots of boiling lead involved, working conditions did, too. The average death age increased year by year until it was about 53 in 1920, the same as other male adults.

It's not all bleak! The swifts had fun, and drank like fish, and had their own typographers' bars, and traveled as journeymen, and led the life of Riley. The book also covers how boys started apprenticing around age 13, the attempt by women to enter the field, and the remarkable anti-union behavior of Susan B. Anthony. The book bogs down into racing statistics at times, but it's generally a rollicking and super-informative slice of life. You understand how typesetters lived and the era that ended.

A Canal Ran Through It

This summer, I went to a talk by David B. Williams, a local author and naturalist who had a co-written book coming out in the fall called Waterway: The Story of Seattle's Locks and Ship Canal (2017, bibliography, index). As a 20-plus-year denizen of Seattle who loves the waterway that winds through the city, and with scattered historical knowledge about how it was fitting together and things cut through—we live near a passage called the Montlake Cut—I enjoyed the heck out of his talk and got the book the moment it was out.

It's lavishly illustrated and beautifully written. He and co-author Jennifer Ott, an environmental historical, trace the massive hydrologic and soil changes carried out by a couple generations of city leaders, local businesspeople, and the Army Corps of Engineers. It's a narrative with relatively little intrigue and corruption, but rather fights among competing visions of restructuring Seattle combined with challenging nature. A river's course is reversed. Another is blocked and effectively removed. A large portion of Elliott Bay is filled—with soil from a canal excavation that was never completed. The one that was lowered Lake Washington by nine feet.

And the book doesn't just look at it from the view of immigrants from the east, but native Americans relationships with the water, and how the reworking affected where they lived, what they ate, and their ability to continue their intertwined lives with salmon.

I think of it as a quintessential Seattle thing to know all the bodies of water and canals between Elliot Bay and Lake Washington, and I see them all with different eyes after reading this book.

(My only quibble is typographic: the book is gorgeously designed and printed in vivid full color, yet the designer opted for a fake (slanted) italic with its body face, which grates on this typographer for its inelegance—why not use a correct, more legible, harmonious italic?)