LibraryThing: State of the Thing
Dear Reader,

Welcome to the December State of the Thing. This month we're thrilled to announce that we'll be donating more than $1,000 to needy readers thanks to those who have added events to LibraryThing Local! We're tracking SantaThing arrivals, picking our favorite books of 2012, there's a year-end ReadaThing coming up, and we're very pleased to welcome Seth Ryder as our new systems administrator! We have author interviews this month with Simon Garfield and Douglas Hunter. There are 2,469 free Early Reviewer books available in December.

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News and features

More than $1,000 raised for needy readers! As we announced last month, for every bookstore and library event added to LibraryThing Local from now until January 1, LibraryThing is donating up to 15 cents to put books in the hands of the needy. We're absolutely thrilled that more than $1,000 has already been raised, with more events being added daily. Thanks to all those who have added events so far, and please do keep adding events! See the blog post for the full announcement. We haven't made a final decision yet about where to send the money, so chime in here and help us choose!

Tracking SantaThing! We had 495 Santas for the sixth annual SantaThing, and books have already started arriving at their destinations. You can report an arrival here, or follow along on the SantaThing Arrivals map.

Our favorite books of 2012. I asked everyone on staff to put together a list of their five favorite reads from 2012. You can check them out on the blog post. What were your top five reads of the year? Come tell us here.

End-of-2012 ReadaThing! The final ReadaThing of 2012 kicks off on December 23, and runs through the 31st. Check out the announcement thread or sign up for a time slot (or no time slot) on the wiki page. I know I'm looking forward to some good reading hours over the ReadaThing period!

Welcome Seth! We're happy to welcome Seth Ryder (sryder) to the LibraryThing team as our new systems administrator! See the blog post for more about Seth.

Free books: Early Reviewers

Read and review free books, before they even hit the shelves! We've given out a grand total of 129,281 books so far through Early Reviewers.

The December batch of Early Reviewer books contains 2,469 copies of 87 different titles. The deadline to request a free book to read and review is January 2 at 6 p.m. EST. The January batch will be up during the second week of January.

The list of books

The most requested books so far this month:

Interview with author Simon Garfield

Simon Garfield is a journalist and author whose books include Just My Type: A Book About Fonts and Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World. His latest book is On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks, out this month from Gotham Books.

I'm going to begin by asking you the first question I asked Ken Jennings when I talked to him about his book Maphead: so what is it about maps, anyway? Why are so many people so fascinated by them?

Maps have helped define what makes us human. Maps were one of the earliest forms of communication, almost certainly existing before language and speech. I'm inclined to agree with Richard Dawkins when he suggests that our ability to draw maps—to show fellow hunters where the juicy elk were—was a key factor in expanding the size of our brains, enabling the leap from apes to homo-sapiens. Beyond all this, maps are frequently beautiful artifacts, telling the best stories in a direct way. The idea of the book was to retell the best of these stories. And occasionally, of course, maps just help us get from A to B.

What first got you interested in maps, and when?

I first got hooked as a boy travelling on the London Underground at the age of 10. The famous Harry Beck tube map—now copied all over the world—was in every carriage and platform. I didn't realize its significance (geographically it's incredibly inaccurate, but as a diagram it's a great piece of information engineering), but I was entranced by the names on it and its possibilities. The prospect of travelling to the end of any of the lines—Amersham at the end of the Metropolitan line, say—seemed as exotic and far away as Antarctica. I've collected tube maps ever since, and now framed copies line my hallway at home.

You've got a collection of early maps, I understand? What's the acquisition you're most proud of?

Apart from a 1908 London Underground Map? Probably a 19th century map of St Ives in Cornwall before it became a tourist attraction. Those surfing beaches sure look empty ...

Of all the maps you got to look at during the research process for your book, which was the strangest?

That would be maps featuring the Mountains of Kong. This was a range that stretched like a belt from the west coast of Africa through half the continent, and featured on world maps and atlases for almost the whole of the 19th century. The mountains were first sketched in 1798 by the highly regarded English cartographer James Rennell, a man already famous for mapping large parts of India. The problem was, he had relied on erroneous reports from short-sighted explorers and his own imagined distant sightings. The Mountains of Kong didn't actually exist, but like an unreliable Wikipedia entry that appears in a million college essays, the mythical range was reproduced on maps by other mappers for more almost a century, until an enterprising Frenchman actually travelled there in 1889 and found that there were hardly even any hills. But they still featured in a Rand McNally map of India in 1890 ...

I also really like a very straightforward map of London on the Internet by a character called Nad. It's a watercolour painted about a decade ago, featuring an oval, the Thames twisting through it, and a small red bulbous area around Kensington and Mayfair marked 'Very Rich'. The whole of the rest of London is simply marked 'Losers'. Humour, politics and simplification in one map—perfect.

What single thing that you learned as you researched On the Map surprised you the most?

Partly it was how much we got wrong about the world as we drew our maps (the Mountains of Kong are only the start of it; there once were more than 120 mapped islands in the Pacific that weren't really there), but partly I was surprised about how much we got right. The maps of the world from the Great Library of Alexandria more than 2000 years ago are remarkable things. Only three continents, but their shapes are very good, and the map makers certainly knew the world was roundish.

A few chapters in On the Map touch on the mistakes that periodically crop up on maps, and sometimes stick around for a while. Obviously each case is different, but give us a couple of examples of how these mistakes happen, and why do you think so many of them are so long-lived?

Well I really should have read all these questions through before I started writing, shouldn't I? But I can certainly comment on the most recent and famous of these mistakes: Apple Maps. How the biggest tech company in the world could get this so wrong is extraordinary, and it took them a week to admit that they'd goofed. Maps and location are the single most important features of phones apart from making calls, and I'm sure it's something Steve Jobs would never have let out the door. The best comment I heard was a tweet: 'I wouldn't trade my Apple Maps for all the tea in Cuba'. I write this on the day when Google have released Google Maps as an app—thank God. (That's God and Dawkins in one questionnaire I hope you realize.)

Read the rest of our interview with Simon Garfield.

Interview with author Douglas Hunter

Douglas Hunter is the author of several books on topics ranging from the voyages of Henry Hudson to yacht design to doughnut shop chain Tim Hortons. His recent book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Christopher Columbus is, of course, a household name, but John Cabot may not be known to many readers. Who was this man, and what did he do?

John Cabot (as he was known in England) was a Venetian citizen who persuaded England's Henry VII in 1496 to grant him some fairly generous rights to prove a westward route across the Atlantic to Asia's riches. His first try in 1496 was a failure, but his second voyage in 1497 made the first known landfall since the Vikings somewhere in northeastern North America, probably in southern Labrador or the coast of Newfoundland. At the time, Columbus hadn't moved beyond Caribbean islands in his own discovery efforts.

Cabot was a bit of an odd duck. He wasn't a seasoned mariner. He was a hide trader who dabbled in property renovation and fled creditors in Venice in the 1480s for Spain. Reinventing himself as a marine construction engineer, Cabot pitched the king, Fernando, on an artificial harbor scheme for Valencia in 1491-92. Fernando and Cabot couldn't line up the money for that project, and Cabot next surfaced in the historical record in 1494 in Seville, the headquarters of the Columbus scheme, overseeing an important bridge project. But Cabot appears not to have done any work on it, and by December 1494 he was essentially being run out of town by displeased nobles. Reinvented himself yet again, Cabot surfaced at the court of Henry VII in England, in January 1946, with his Asia voyage scheme. And so this considerable rival to Columbus emerged from within Columbus's own milieu.

You suggest that Cabot may have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493. Lay out the evidence for us, and explain what this finding might mean for our understanding of the history of exploration (or for Cabot and Columbus themselves).

What's really puzzling about Cabot's career is how he managed to persuade Henry VII to grant him such generous rights for an Asia voyage in 1496 when he had no apparent track record as an expert mariner, let alone as an exploration promoter.

It's becoming increasingly clear that English mariners out of Bristol already may have reached the New World, perhaps earlier than 1470. Cabot could have tapped into this lost knowledge in proposing his voyage to Henry VII. But if that awareness was circulating, why didn't Henry give the job and its many privileges to an Englishman? Henry was a shrewd and tight-fisted ruler. Something about Cabot's pitch persuaded him that this Venetian deserved the rights handed over to him.

There is more to this than I can explain here, but the most compelling case Cabot could have made for the rights he secured was that he had already been to Asia, and so he knew how to get there. Cabot was a bit of a confidence man. I think either he claimed something he hadn't done, or he had actually already had been to Asia, or the New World, rather, with Columbus. There are a couple bits of circumstantial evidence to support the distinct possibility that Cabot had been on the second Columbus voyage, which departed Spain in September 1493.

One of the bits of evidence I use is a really opaque letter written by the Spanish monarchs to their ambassador in London in early 1496. I engaged the help of an academic expert in early Spanish, and the letter seems to refer to Cabot as "the one from the Indies." Anyone interested in the tough slogging of historical translation should visit my website, follow the link for this book, and read the essay about "lo de las yndias."

What surprised you most as you worked on the research for this book? Did you stumble across anything that you really didn't expect?

You can probably gather from the answers above that a lot of things surprised me, much more than I can outline here. I didn't expect to build a case for Cabot having been on the 1493 Columbus voyage. Another important issue I raise is that Cabot's essential idea, of a more northern passage to Asia that was shorter than the one Columbus was using, was precisely the idea pitched to the Portuguese in 1493 by a German friend of Columbus, Martin Behaim. I show how Cabot could have crossed paths with Behaim's close associate, Jerome Munzer, who was in Seville at the very time Cabot was supposed to be building a bridge—a job he evidently abandoned in order to take up the Behaim scheme.

I didn't start to see the connections between Cabot and Behaim until probably halfway through the research, and then only after reading a recently published French translation of Jerome Munzer's 1493-94 travel diary, which was written in Latin. Behaim moreover was closely linked by marriage to the exploring Corte-Reals of Portugal. So the main characters in the history of late 15th century Atlantic exploration appear to have been far more intertwined than we've been led to believe.

Read the rest of our interview with Douglas Hunter.

Author chats

Author Chat lets you talk to authors—ask questions, get answers, and find out more about how or why a book is written. The schedule of upcoming chats is posted too, so you can plan to read the author's book ahead of time.

Upcoming chat: Susan Froetschel will discuss Fear of Beauty, from January 28 - February 3.

Take me to the chats!

More free books: Member Giveaways

At any given time, there are hundreds of books available from our Member Giveaways program. Member Giveaways is like Early Reviewers, but isn't limited to select publishers—any author or member can post books. Request books, or offer your own!

Hot titles this month

  1. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  4. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson
  5. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
  6. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  7. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
  8. Fifty Shades Freed by E L James
  9. Fifty Shades Darker by E L James
  10. Quiet by Susan Cain

That's it.

Happy holidays from all of us at LibraryThing, and may your 2013 be filled with good health, good cheer, and good books!

Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions? Send them our way.

—Jeremy (jeremy@librarything.com)

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