Michael Hart, 1947-2011, inventor of the ebook

Last year I wrote a piece for the Reader magazine about ebooks, which explained to the relatively conservative and technophobic readership what they are, and how to go about reading them. The world of ebooks is changing fast, but they have been around much longer than most people realise–since 1971, in fact. That was the year that Michael S. Hart, who died on September 6th, aged 64, published the first ebook (the Declaration of Independence) to his Project Gutenberg. There are now 36,000 ebooks on the site, all of them free to download, and available in various formats. Hart was not well known, but his legacy is a revolution in the way we edit, publish, and distribute books. He saw the potential for electronic reading, and the widespread dissemination of literature and knowledge, at a time when computers lived in large, air-conditioned, and sealed facilities, and when handheld computing devices existed only in science fiction. An early obituary is here. Hart’s Wikipedia page is here.

Ray and Cissy Chandler to be Reunited

A note to say that Loren Latker’s campaign to have the ashes of Cissy Chandler moved from a storage facility to the grave of her husband, crime writer Raymond Chandler, has been successful. The San Diego court granted the petition yesterday. Thanks to anyone who signed the petition which headed this blog over the summer. More at The Venetian Vase.

Ray and Cissy: Petition to Reunite the Chandlers

Back in March I wrote about an effort to have the ashes of Cissy Chandler, the wife of Raymond Chandler, moved from their current resting place, on a shelf in a public mausoleum, to the grave of her husband, who adored and idolized her. Loren Latker, of the Shamus Town website, is taking a lot of trouble to bring them together as they wished and the case seems set to be heard by a judge in September in San Diego, near to La Jolla where the Chandlers lived. He has set up a petition which takes only a moment to ‘sign’ and which, if there are enough signatories, should be a huge boost to the chances of the court allowing the move. If you’re a Chandler fan and you have a few seconds spare to pay your respects to the great man, do go over and sign the petition, which you can find here.

More on the campaign to reunite the Chandlers is here.

Crossposted from The Venetian Vase.

Melville Davisson Post Birth Date Mystery Solved

Melville Davisson Post's headstone at the Elkview cemetery, Clarksburg, West Virginia. Image by Katina Peters.

Yesterday I was researching a short piece on Melville Davisson Post, the magazine short story writer who created Uncle Abner, a Jeffersonian-era detective from the backwoods of what was then Virginia. For a time at the start of the twentieth century Post was apparently the best-paid magazine short story writer in the United States. His first creation, a crooked lawyer named Randolph Mason, drew criticism because many people felt his techniques for evading justice would give the criminal fraternity ideas. In fact Post, who started out as a lawyer, used the Randolph Mason stories to expose loopholes in the law. Here are a few examples of his stories.

So far so good I thought, but I hit problems when I tried to establish and verify Post’s birth and death dates. My first port of call was Wikipedia, which claimed he was born on April 19, 1869 and died on June 23, 1930. Of course you can’t stop with Wikipedia, so I looked at several other sources, including Webster’s Biographical Dictionary (1995 edition), the venerable Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection by Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler (1976), which I bought in a book shop in Santa Rosa, California a few years ago, and Howard Haycraft’s Murder for Pleasure (1941), which gives brief biographies of detective fiction writers. They disagreed. Webster’s claims he lived from 1871-1930, Steinbrunner and Penzler picked 1869-1930, while Haycraft, whose book was published only 11 years after Post’s death, says 1871-1930. Finally, I looked at Find a Grave, an excellent website which helps you do exactly that. Find a Grave listed 1871 as his birth year.

After all that I was thoroughly puzzled. I asked on Twitter to see if anyone had any ideas, but still couldn’t get confirmation. In the end I resorted to emailing Katina Peters, who lives in West Virginia and provides photographs of headstones to people researching the whereabouts of their ancestors through Find a Grave. She very kindly sent me two links to pages at http://wvculture.org which states its mission “is to identify, preserve, protect, promote, and present the ideas, arts, and artifacts of West Virginia’s heritage, building pride in our past accomplishments and confidence in our future”. It carries free online copies of birth and death records for West Virginia residents, including Melville Davisson Post. And here they are:

Born April 19, 1869
Died June 23, 1930

Note that the death certificate claims he was born in 1871; that’s probably where the error crept in. This kind of discrepancy is surprisingly common in official records and after years of working on this kind of thing I have come to the conclusion that a great deal of what we believe to be true about the past is actually invented. Curiously many sources claim Post died after falling from a horse, but whether he had a fall or not, he also had some kind of cirrhosis which his doctor cited as the primary cause of death.

Find a Grave will be updated.

Edit July 9, 2009: Image of headstone added.

Siobhan Chapman on Arne Naess

Siobhan Chapman, my wife, partner in crime, and recent author of Language and Empiricism, After the Vienna Circle has written a brief post on Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher who died on Monday:

The Norwegian philosopher and environmentalist Arne Naess died on Monday, two weeks short of his 97th birthday. The Associated Press announcement, along with most of the tributes now being paid to Naess, focus on his ecological work and appropriately so; the ‘Deep Ecology’ movement, which he founded in 1970, is his greatest intellectual legacy. But Naess is also a significant figure in the history of analytic philosophy. He was the last surviving philosopher to have attended meetings of the Vienna Circle in the 1930s … [More]