Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

New feature: Tag translation

As many of you know, LibraryThing is available in more than a dozen languages like German (LibraryThing.de), French (LibraryThing.fr), Dutch (LibraryThing.nl), Finnish (fi.LibraryThing.com), Polish (pl.LibraryThing.com) and Slovak (sk.LibraryThing.com).

Basics: Today I introduced a new feature, called “tag translation,” to show many of LibraryThing’s 87 million tags in the language of the site. Translation has been seeded with translations drawn from one user-driven ecosystem, Wikipedia. LibraryThing users can help out by adding new translations, and voting on existing ones. Although words are rarely perfectly equivalent between languages, translation may prove useful to many of LibraryThing’s non-English members and, in time, to libraries that use LibraryThing’s data feeds and LibraryThing for Libraries.

The feature: Tags show up translated wherever tags appear(1). You can choose to see them that way, with color-coding (pink for translated) or you can opt to shut the feature off. Here’s a a version of Thucydides with current German-language tag translations.

The same can also be seen on tag pages, for example on this French page for “love.”

Tag translations can be examined, voted upon and edited at the bottom of tag pages. Here’s the expanded view of some of the tags for “Love.” This is the only part of tag translation that is seen on the English site LibraryThing.com.

To turn off or to color the tag translations, use the little info button at the bottom of tag clouds (wording will vary according to language.) It pops up a little area to make the change.

Review translations: You can review recent translations, and vote on them here: http://www.librarything.com/helpers_tagtranslations.php.

More information. For more information about how tag translation works and to comment come join us on Talk.

Labels: new feature, new features, tagging, tags

Monday, June 4th, 2012

June Early Reviewers batch is up!

The June 2012 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 93 books this month, and a grand total of 2,341 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Monday, June 25th at 6 p.m. EDT.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, and many more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

Taylor Trade Publishing Riverhead Books Mulholland Books
Henry Holt and Company Doubleday Books Ballantine Books
St. Martin’s Griffin Kensington Publishing Dafina
Demos Health South Dakota State Historical Society Press HighBridge
Dutton Orbit Books Random House Trade Paperbacks
Sunrise River Press McFarland Random House
Charlesbridge CarTech Books Aauvi House
Scribner Books Thomas Dunne Books Human Kinetics
Spiegel & Grau Gray & Company, Publishers BookViewCafe
Five Rivers Chapmanry Orca Book Publishers William Morrow
Bethany House Kirkdale Press The Permanent Press
Leafwood Publishers

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

May Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online. It includes author interviews with Hilary Mantel, Naomi Novik, Jonathan Gottschall, and Melissa Coleman.

I talked to Hilary Mantel about her new book Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall, published this month by Henry Holt.

Originally, you’ve said, you planned just “one enormous book” on Thomas Cromwell, but now we’re looking at a trilogy. When did you realize first that his story needed two books, and now three?

I think that fiction, even historical fiction, is inherently unpredictable. You know what the story is, but you don’t know until you tell it where its power is located, where
you will place the focus and how you need to shape it. I did originally imagine there would be just one book, but as I began to tell the story of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, I realized that it needed to be played out properly, that it couldn’t be hurried: that it was, in fact, the climax of a book, not an episode in a book. At that point, I decided that Wolf Hall would end with More’s death, and the royal party heading for the house named in the title. With Bring up the Bodies, the process of discovery was virtually the same, though it still caught me unawares. I came to write the end of the Boleyns, and realized that I already had a book; the buildup to that tragedy is so stealthy, the climax so horrifying, that I thought the reader would want to pause, close the book, take a breath.

So the whole project reshaped itself for a second time, and very swiftly; in each case, the process of realization took a split second; and the second after that, it seemed obvious. To some readers it might sound as if my method of work is very disorganized. I’d prefer to think of it as an organic, evolving process: sudden discoveries and sudden demands breeding changes of tactics. I like to gather my material, think for a long time, but make the business of writing itself as spontaneous and flexible as possible. If I can I like to take myself by surprise.

What was it about Thomas Cromwell that initially drew you to him as a way to write about the Tudor period?

It appealed to me because his character had never been explored properly in fiction or drama. Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith and brewer, and this stratified, hierarchical society, he rose to become the king’s right-hand man and eventually Earl of Essex; you have to ask, how did he do it? Luck? Calculation? Both, surely, but what combination of the two? And what drove him? When you worked for Henry VIII, the stakes were so high. One slip and you were dead. I wanted to try to work out what combination of ambition and idealism motivated Cromwell. In what ways was he typical of his time, and in what ways unique? And as I was asking myself, as I always do when I write I historical fiction, how did this man’s life feel, from the inside?

When you stand in Cromwell’s shoes, familiar events are defamiliarised. The story, which is irresistible in itself, comes up fresh and new.

Read the rest of our interview with Hilary Mantel.

I also talked to Naomi Novik, the author of the fascinating Temeraire fantasy series. The latest volume, Crucible of Gold, was published in March by Del Rey. Some excerpts:

On your website, you offer a few “deleted scenes” from the Temeraire books, and you note there “I tend to write fast and revise heavily, and I cut liberally.” Tell us a bit more about your writing process: when do you do most of your writing? Where? Do you compose in longhand, or use a computer?

I have no rules other than that I tend to change my rules fairly often. Each book has worked differently. My life has changed quite a lot over the course of writing the series—I have a new baby now, so I write from 9:30 to 4:30 because that’s when I have child care. My natural state of writing is really more writing from 11 in the morning to 3 a.m.; that’s my intuitive style. I do generally like to work at a fairly fast pace—when it’s flowing I’m getting two to three thousand words a day. I still like to get the skeleton down and then polish it. My single biggest trick for when I need to focus and get productivity is to go somewhere where there isn’t internet, so I’ll go to a café with a laptop and just write there. It’s actually getting increasingly hard to avoid the internet, though. I don’t really write longhand unless I get stuck; if I get stuck, then what I do is grab a journal and start writing some longhand, and that loosens things up a bit. Once I’ve started, I like so much having the freedom to revise heavily and save different versions that I always really want to be on the computer.

Anything you’d like to tell us about the next Temeraire volume (the eighth)? Have you selected a title yet? Any hint of where Laurence and Temeraire might be off to next?

My working title for it is “Luck and Palaces,” and I suppose I can give a hint, which is that that is from a translation of poems by Wisława Szymborska, and the line is about the city of Kyoto. So that’s my little hint. The other clue I will give is that it’s the year 1812.

Read the rest of our interview with Naomi Novik.

I had the chance to talk with Jonathan Gottschall about The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, published in April by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

If you can give us the nutshell version, what is it about stories (whether it be fiction, or drama, or televised sports, or dreams, or computer games) that makes us as humans so attracted to them, and gives them such a powerful hold over us?

Homo sapiens is this weird sort of primate that lives inside stories, and we don’t know why for certain. I cover several competing ideas in the book, but they all break down into two big categories. 1) We like stories because they have hidden evolutionary benefits. 2) The mind isn’t designed for story, it has a glitch that makes it vulnerable to story. In the latter view, fiction is like porn—a mere pleasure technology that we’ve invented to titillate the pleasure circuits of the brain. I argue that story addiction is mainly good for us: story is a whetstone for the mind, and it acts as a kind of social glue—helping to bind individuals together into functioning societies.

It was an experience with a song that prompted you to write this book, as you note in the opening pages. Tell us about that moment, and do you see significant differences in the way humans are affected by stories in different media (print, song, video, &c.), or does the impact tend to be similar?

One day, I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks singing “Stealing Cinderella”—a song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears, and I had to veer off on the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?” I wrote the book to try to answer that question. How can stories—the fake struggles of fake people—have such incredible power over us? Why are we storytelling animals?

And yes, different forms of storytelling affect us in different ways. Most popular songs are stories set to music, and they evoke powerful emotion. The same goes for films. People respond so intensely and authentically to film, that when psychologists want to study an emotion, like sadness, they subject people to clips from tear-jerkers like “Old Yeller” or “Love Story”.

Read the rest of our interview with Jonathan Gottschall.

Last but not least, Lisa Carey interviewed Melissa Coleman about her book This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, now out in paperback.

What made you decide to write this memoir? Was it something you always intended to write about?

Somehow I managed to avoid writing, and talking much, about my childhood for many years, fearing, I think, that I was responsible for some of the tragic things that happened. However, with the birth of my children, the past began urging me to make peace. I also found myself wanting to celebrate the beauty and connection to nature in my childhood, and the amazing effort made by my father, Eliot Coleman, and others, to lay the foundations for today’s organic food revolution.

How much research was involved to bring such rich detail to the parts that occurred before you were old enough to remember it? You have your mother’s journals. Did your parents help you otherwise in the process of telling this story?

I began with my own scraps of memories, images from photos, and family stories, but I needed to do a lot of research to fill in the blanks. There was my mother’s journal, numerous news articles about us, books by the Nearings and others, and I tracked down and interviewed many of the apprentices and people who visited us during the 1970s. It was only with the help of all these people, especially my parents, that I was able to tell this story.

Was this a difficult book to write? Or was it liberating?

Both! It’s incredibly difficult to dig into painful events in the past, but also very rewarding to let them go and find the beauty beneath. The liberation that came was something like what comes from making compost. You put all these scraps of things into a pile and let them settle and soon enough they turn into black gold, as my father calls compost, the rich soil in which new life can grow.

Read the rest of Lisa’s interview with Melissa Coleman.


Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Free accounts for bookseller reference libraries!

A good reference library is a must-have for any bookseller, but having a wide range of useful reference sources at hand is particularly necessary for the booksellers who operate at the used/rare/antiquarian end of the spectrum. If you’ve ever had a chance to browse through a really good bookseller reference library, you’ll know immediately what I’m talking about (and, like me, you’ve probably had to be practically dragged away from the shelves).

Brooke Palmieri, a bookseller at Sokol Books, Ltd. in London (read a profile of Brooke from the Fine Books Blog’s “Bright Young Things” series here, or check out her excellent blog, 8vo), has been cataloging Sokol’s reference library on LibraryThing (Sokol_Books_Ltd), and that got me thinking about ways we might be able to encourage other booksellers to use LibraryThing for their reference collections. A good first step: free accounts for everyone!

So, as of today, we’re offering free lifetime LibraryThing memberships to booksellers who are members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA), Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) or the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB)!*

Just open an organizational account on LibraryThing and email me (jeremy@librarything.com) with the username you choose, and I’ll upgrade it to lifetime status. You commit to adding your reference library to LibraryThing. It doesn’t have to be immediately, of course; booksellers are some of the busiest people I know! You’ll have a useful catalog of your reference books, and the world will be able to (virtually) browse your shelves. And if you want a hand cataloging, let me know that too – we can almost certainly pull together a merry band of LibraryThing volunteers to come help sometime (and, ahem, do some shopping too!).

Huge thanks to Brooke for providing the impetus for this, and for the picture (a portion of the Sokol Books collection). She noted on Twitter this morning that the reason she started cataloging on LT was that the library “isn’t consistently organized & I when I first started working I needed to learn its contents FAST. I have heard horror stories of firms owning multiple copies of expensive bibliographies because their libraries are disorganized … so cataloguing a ref library saves 1) time 2) money 3) teaching other employees what you have committed to muscle memory.” If we can help at all with any of that, we’re happy to!

Mmm, bookstores. For more ways to use LT, see our How Bookstores Can Use LibraryThing page.


* If you’re a bookseller and not a member of those assocations, but have a large reference library you want to catalog on LibraryThing, just email me; we’ll make it work.

Labels: booksellers, bookstores, references

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Edible Book Contest winners!

Thanks to everyone who entered our first virtual Edible Books Contest! We were delighted at the number and range of entries, and I think we’ll plan to do it again next year! Check out all of the entries in the gallery.

Without further ado, your winners …

The grand prize goes to TheCriticalTimes for this edible version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, made of sponge cake and edible paper, complete with fondant Kraken.

Along with the honor and fame, TheCriticalTimes wins an LT t-shirt, stamp, and sticker, plus a CueCat and three lifetime gift memberships to LibraryThing!

We picked two runners-up: both will win their choice of an LT t-shirt, stamp, or CueCat, plus two lifetime gift memberships. The runners-up are Unexpected, for “The Luggage,” from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series (chocolate cake with marzipan and “lots of little pink icing feet”) and mellu for this take on Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, made of marzipan (with a real carrot nose!).

We also chose a couple of Honorable Mention winners; each will receive a lifetime gift membership. These are infomagnet for War and Pizza, and exlibrislady for the delicious-sounding (and looking!) Gregor and the Apple (“a crunchy peanut butter mousse covered in a hard chocolate shell on caramel feet. The plate is garnished with raspberry coulis and a single apple crisp. It must be eaten in a grey, bleak building while the rain falls dispassionately outside”).

I’ll be contacting the winners to claim their prizes.

Congratulations to our winners, thanks again to all the entrants, and watch for an announcement next spring for our second Edible Books contest!

Labels: contest, contests, fun

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Harvard University’s 12 million records now in LibraryThing

Short version. Our “Overcat” search now includes 12.3 million records from Harvard University!

Long version. On April 24 the Harvard Library announced that more than 12 million MARC records from across its 73 libraries would be made available under the library’s Open Metadata policy and a Creative Commons 0 public domain license. The announcement stunned the library world, because Harvard went against the wishes of the shared-cataloging company OCLC, who have long sought to prevent libraries from releasing records in this way. (For background on OCLC’s efforts see past blog posts.)

It took a while to process, but we’ve finally completed adding all 12.3 million MARC records (3.1GB of bibliographic goodness!) to LibraryThing. They’ve gone into OverCat, our giant index of library records from around the world—now numbering more than 51 million records! As a result, when searching OverCat under “Add books,” you’ll now see results “from Harvard OpenMetadata.”

This release (“big data for books,” as David Weinberger calls it) is, to put it mildly, a Very Big Deal. Harvard’s collections are both deep and broad, covering a wide variety of languages, fields, and formats. The addition of these 12 million records to OverCat has significantly improved our capacity for the cataloging of scholarly and rare books, and greatly enhanced our coverage generally.

Kudos to Harvard for making this metadata available, and we hope that other libraries will follow suit.

For more on the metadata release, see Quentin Hardy’s New York Times blog post, the Dataset description, or the Open Metadata FAQ. And happy cataloging!

Come discuss here.


Harvard requests and we’re happy to add: The “Harvard University Open Metadata” records in OverCat contain information from the Harvard Library Bibliographic Dataset, which is provided by the Harvard Library under its Bibliographic Dataset Use Terms and includes data made available by, among others, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc. and the Library of Congress.

Labels: cataloging, open data

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Summer internship at LibraryThing

Will you be around Portland, Maine this summer? Are you interested in libraries, programming, or website design? LibraryThing’s looking for a local intern (or two) to work on a variety of projects for us. Depending on your interests and skills, we may have you work on programming or design for LibraryThing.com; we’d also be interested in having some help on various Legacy Library projects, so if you have an interest in historical libraries and bibliography, we’d love to hear from you too!

Potential internship opportunities:

  • LibraryThing.com programmer. Build a new feature (or improve an existing one) for LibraryThing.
  • Designer-developer. Help LibraryThing plan its future look.
  • Legacy Libraries researcher/cataloger. Assist with research, cataloging and maintenance of the Legacy Libraries.

Skills

  • Programming. LibraryThing is made with PHP, mostly in non-OO code. We also use JavaScript and MySQL.
  • Design. The standard software and a keen eye.
  • Legacy Libraries, we’re looking for someone with an interest in library history and bibliographic description. You don’t need to have the programming and design skills mentioned above, but a familiarity with bibliographic databases and rare books is a must.
  • Bonus. Familiarity with LibraryThing itself would be extremely helpful.

Intangibles

  • We like to hire people who care about books and libraries, and believe in a open and humane vision of the future for both. We live to create technologies that make readers happy and keep libraries vital.
  • LibraryThing is an informal, high-pressure and high-energy environment. Programming is rapid, creative and unencumbered by process. We put a premium on speed and reliability, communication and responsibility.

Location

LibraryThing is headquartered in Portland, Maine. For these internships we’re looking for people who can be in the office regularly.

Compensation & Schedule

We’ll pay—minimum wage, but we’ll pay! We’ll work with you to come up with a suitable schedule for the summer, but ideally we’d like you to commit to about a month with us.

How to apply

Send an email and resume to jeremy@librarything.com. Instead of a cover letter, go through this blog post in your email, responding to it, especially the skills and intangibles part, and suggest some ways you could be useful or projects you’d love to work on. Include your availability for the summer months (June, July, August).

Labels: jobs

Monday, May 7th, 2012

May Early Reviewers batch is up!

The May 2012 batch of Early Reviewer books is up! We’ve got 100 books this month, and a grand total of 2,841 copies to give out.

First, make sure to sign up for Early Reviewers. If you’ve already signed up, please check your mailing address and make sure it’s correct.

Then request away! The list of available books is here:
http://www.librarything.com/er/list

The deadline to request a copy is Tuesday, May 29th at 6 p.m. EDT.

Eligiblity: Publishers do things country-by-country. This month we have publishers who can send books to the US, Canada, the UK, and more. Make sure to check the flags by each book to see if it can be sent to your country.

Thanks to all the publishers participating this month!

Taylor Trade Publishing Akashic Books Henry Holt and Company
Riverhead Books Lake Claremont Press Ballantine Books
Wilderness Press Ashland Creek Press Doubleday Books
Tundra Books South Dakota State Historical Society Press Random House
The Permanent Press Small Beer Press St. Martin’s Griffin
Exterminating Angel Press Touchstone Books Random House Canada
JournalStone Eerdmans Books for Young Readers Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Kayelle Press Random House Trade Paperbacks Putnam Books
Human Kinetics Heathrow Books William Morrow
Archipelago Books Talonbooks Leafwood Publishers
Palgrave Macmillan Safe Harbor Publishing Centrinian Publishing Ltd
BookViewCafe Bellevue Literary Press Quirk Books
McFarland Dragonfairy Press Kensington Publishing
Ingber Spiegel & Grau Stone House Press
Crux Publishing

Labels: early reviewers, LTER

Monday, May 7th, 2012

Reminder: Edible Books Contest!

Quick reminder: we’ll be accepting new entries for our Edible Books Contest until 4 p.m. EDT on Thursday, May 10.

See the contest announcement for all the details on entries, rules, prize information, etc. Or check out the entries submitted so far in the photo gallery.

Labels: contest, contests, fun

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

April Author Interviews!

This month’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, is on its way to your inbox. You can also read it online. It includes a reminder about our Edible Books Contest and more!

For one of our author interviews this month, I talked to Elizabeth Little about her new book Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, published this month by Walker & Company.

What was the most enjoyable moment in researching Trip of the Tongue? The worst?

My most enjoyable moment was, without a doubt, my first evening in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I had just spent the past few days with friends in Tacoma, and I was loathe to leave their hospitality for what sounded like an uncomfortably rustic accommodation in the middle of nowhere. But then I discovered that I was staying in a cozy little cabin a stone’s throw away from this windswept gem of beach. That evening I walked along the sand in my bare feet as the sun set. Then I returned to my cabin to drink hot chocolate and read about language. A near-perfect evening.

My least enjoyable moment, on the other hand, was surely when I was in northern Maine, when I got caught in a snowstorm and had to battle all-day morning sickness. There’s a very good reason why that section didn’t make it into the book.

How did you end up deciding which particular languages to highlight in the book? Were there some that just barely didn’t make the cut that you’d like to tell us about?

The languages that made it into the book were those that really challenged my own assumptions about the history of language—or language itself—in the United States. I spent some time in San Francisco, for instance, but my background in Chinese language and culture made for a less than compelling narrative thread. It was a lot of “Oh, yes, I remember reading about that.” (Looking back on things now, I wish I had tried to look at Chinese language and culture in Old West frontier towns. Although that should probably be a book of its own.)

Some other sections had to be set aside because they led me down a very different path than the one I was trying to travel. The chapter that got cut at the very last minute was a chapter that looked at the impact of technological change—very particularly in transportation and manufacturing—on language communities in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. I loved my time in each of those cities – in Baltimore I met the loveliest and most helpful docent and historian at the city’s Jewish museum; in Cleveland I gorged on paprikash and learned about Hungarian girl scouts; and in Detroit I went to the Ford Rouge Factory, which turned out to be one of my favorite activities on the entire trip. Unfortunately, when I found myself compiling economic paper after economic paper for research purposes, I had to acknowledge that my focus was starting to drift.

In the final chapter of your book, you note that Trip of the Tongue didn’t end up being the book you thought it would be. How did you originally envision it, and how did your travels and experiences change the book into what it is?

At the beginning I envisioned that the book would be more of a romp: road-tripping high jinks with some linguistic data thrown in. What I ended up with, though, is something more like a meditation. On language, on discrimination, on my own preconceived notions. I first got an inkling of this in South Carolina, where I went to learn about Gullah. My very first day in Charleston, I learned about these spikes (called chevaux-de-frise) that some city residents put on their fences in the nineteenth century to protect themselves in the event of a slave rebellion. It was at that point that the desire to write anything resembling a romp died a swift death. The history of race and language and culture in the United States isn’t exactly rich in comedy. (Though I certainly tried to find it where I could.)

But I’m glad that I ended up somewhere very different than I’d intended. Because it’s not much of a journey of discovery if you only learn things you already knew.

Read the rest of our interview with Elizabeth Little.

I also talked to Diana Preston, the author of The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-1842, published earlier this year by Walker & Company.

For those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, give us a thumbnail synopsis of the First Anglo-Afghan War: how did the conflict come about, how long did it last, and what was the result?

The First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838-42 is one of Britain’s most notorious military catastrophes. The genesis of the war was British suspicion that imperialist and expansionist Russia was planning to advance through Afghanistan to invade India, Britain’s richest and most prized colonial possession. The Afghans resented the British presence, and the invasion was politically controversial at home. Barely two years after the British had occupied Kabul thousands of British and Indian troops, officials and their dependents suddenly found themselves besieged. A disastrous retreat to India under constant attack by the Afghan hill tribes left only one Briton and several Indian soldiers alive. When the news of the disaster reached Britain, it was greeted with anger and the British sent an army of retribution to punish the Afghans. Soon afterwards, the British withdrew from Afghanistan with their puppet king already murdered, allowing Dost Mohammed, who had surrendered to the British and been exiled by them, to return. The entire enterprise was a disaster that soured British-Afghan relations for many years.

How did you come to be interested in the conflict, and how long was the research process for The Dark Defile?

I’ve been interested in the conflict for a long time and in particular in some of the characters but the more I began delving into the sources the more I realized it is something of a cautionary tale. The Duke of Wellington (the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo and a former Prime Minister) predicted at the time—accurately as it turned out—that “The consequence of crossing the Indus once, to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country.” (British forces entered Afghanistan twice more over the subsequent 80 years, before doing so again as part of the current NATO-led force.) I became increasingly intrigued not only by what actually happened and the many vivid personal stories but also by the wider political and strategic issues surrounding the campaign.

Subsequent research in the UK and northern India took about two years.

I was struck by Lady Florentia Sale, whose diary of the war you draw on frequently in the book. Tell us how Lady Sale ended up in the middle of the conflict, and about her diary which recounts so vividly the events she witnessed.

Plain-speaking, fifty-year-old Florentia Sale arrived in Kabul to join her husband, a senior British officer nicknamed “Fighting Bob”. She devoted her early months to planting a flower garden but when the Afghans rose up she found herself trapped in Kabul without her husband who had left with his regiment for India. She commented acidly on subsequent British military incompetence and diplomatic vacillation, writing, “it appears a very strange circumstance that troops were not immediately sent into the city to quell the [rising] … but we seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on … General Elphinstone vacillates on every point. His own judgment appears to be good but he is swayed by the last speaker …”

She survived the early days of the British retreat, caring with her pregnant daughter for her dying son-in-law, a wounded British officer. She was then taken hostage by the Afghans. Her clear-eyed, unsentimental, occasionally humorous diary provides a detailed account of events, both previously in Kabul and then in her captivity and—unlike some of the other eyewitness accounts written with an eye to publication—rings true to the core. She describes how, as she and the other prisoners were bundled away by their Afghan captors, they passed naked starving people left behind by the retreating British column who were surviving “by feeding on their dead comrades.” She also wrote that she and the other prisoners quickly became verminous—”very few of us … are not covered with crawlers”—and learned to distinguish between lice which they called “infantry” and fleas which were “light cavalry”. She lived to be eventually reunited with her husband.

Read the rest of our interview with Diana Preston.


Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.

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Labels: author interview, authors, state of the thing