Ex Libris

Book pile

When I first started out planning which books I would use my ex libris for, I assumed that it would more or less be a list of my favourite books. However, when I actually started to consider which of my books I really wanted my ex libris in, it became more complicated. Instead of asking myself if a particular text was a favourite of mine, I found myself thinking more about the physical book and whether or not I would want to hang on to that particular edition forever. Some of my favourite books are almost falling apart and will eventually have to be replaced so those hardly make sense to label. Others I have in more than one edition and deciding which edition to label is not trivial. Take the Narnia books for example, should I place my ex libris in the Swedish edition which I read again and again as a child but which is now brown or fragile, or in my quality English edition, which I have no personal history with, but which I most likely would choose for a reread?

For now I have deferred any difficult decisions and only placed them in books I plan to keep through good times and bad.

These were the first ten I selected:

Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove Jansson

A favourite book by a favourite author, an easy choice.

Nordisk fjällflora (Field Guide to Nordic Mountain Flowers) by Örjan Nilsson

I’m not much of an amateur botanist but my grandmother was and this field guide is full of her notes on flowers she has seen. As I spend much time in the Swedish mountains I got it as a gift from her. The fact that it already contained her ex libris made it extra special.

Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch

My mother has selected a small book canon which all her children are getting, and out of those this one is probably my favourite. The way it describes life from a child’s point of view is not unlike Jansson’s The Summer Book.

Bröderna Lejonhjärta (Brothers Lionheart) by Astrid Lindgren

Death, courage and love. This is one of the bravest children’s book I know.

Visor och ballader by Dan Andersson

Poetry by Dan Andersson, one of my favourite poets.

The hunting of the snark by Lewis Carroll

I’m not sure why I love this nonsense poem so much but I do, especially the description of the sea chart without the least vestige of land. My edition has Tove Jansson’s illustrations in it which of course makes it particularly good.

Århundradets kärlekshistoria (Love story of a century) by Märta Tikkanen

Memoir of a dysfunctional marriage in lyrical form, this one is a classic.

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh

I have read this one so many times that I had to replace my original softcover edition which was falling apart. Admittedly a slightly weird book for a teenage obsession but a perfect antidote to all the math hating protagonists in children’s and YA literature. (Why do authors keep using this trope? No wonder that children conclude that math ability is something you are born with rather than something you learn).

Antarktisboken ( The White Desert: The official account of the Norwegian–British–Swedish Antarctic Expedition) by John Giæver and others

I love the Arctic and the Antarctic but have always been more interested in the science part than in the patriotic flag-planting adventures. This account from a Norwegian-British-Swedish research expedition to Queen Maud Land in 1949-1952 is thus perfect.

How the universe got its spots

Well-written memoir/diary with interesting musings on cosmology. I got it as a gift from a friend at my dissertation which makes it extra special.




More a tadpole than a fish?

Sperm whale battling squid

I had an excellent summer for reading. No internet, few disturbances and quite a bit of rain. Thanks to these fortunate circumstances I finally read a few books I have been postponing, including “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea” (fun but not very memorable) and “Moby Dick” (excellent!).

Reading these novels next to each other I amused myself by comparing their descriptions of whales, especially cachalots (sperm whales). Moby Dick is naturally full of descriptions of whales but I was particularly interested in the following section:

“First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnæus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnæus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.

The grounds upon which Linnæus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “ex lege naturæ jure meritoque.” I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.”

Having thus dismissed Linnæus arguments the narrator continues by defining a whale as “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail”. The truth of this statement is of course dependent on your definition of fish but I would side with Linnæus here and argue that a whale is not a fish.

In contrast we have the following description of cachalots from captain Nemo in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, amusingly just after he declared the hunting of Baleen whales (unless fresh meat for the crew was needed) a “murderous pastimes.

“Those are sperm whales, dreadful animals that I’ve sometimes encountered in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they’re cruel, destructive beasts, and they deserve to be exterminated. […] We’ll take no pity on these ferocious cetaceans. They’re merely mouth and teeth!”

The main character in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, Professor Aronnax, agrees with this assessment and adds: “The sperm whale is an awkward animal, more tadpole than fish, as Professor Frédol* has noted.” which I find a glourious insult to the world’s largest toothed whale. I already argued that a whale is no fish, the intriguing question now is whether it is also true that a cachelot is more a tadpole than a fish?

To answer that question I used science and internet, more specifically the site timetree.org which gives the time of divergence of two species, that is the time when their evolutionary ancestors separated. To test whether a cachelot is more a tadpole than a fish I searched for the divergence time of the following species:

  • Physeter macrocephalus or cachelot (sperm whale)
  • Rana temporaria or common frog as a representative of tadpoles.
  • Gadus morhua or cod as a representative of fishes.

Fittingly all three species got their scientific names from Linnæus in his Systema Naturae (1758).

From timetree.org I learnt that the evolutionary branches of cachelot and common frog got separated around 352 million years ago, in the Early Carboniferous. Cachelot and cod on the other hand got separated already 435 million years ago, during the Silurian, and are therefore less closely related. It would thus be at least partly fair to call a cachelot more tadpole than fish”

The more difficult question of whether a tadpole is more a cachelot than a fish I leave as an open question for the comment field.

Cachalots (sperm whales)

*Le monde de la mer by Alfred Frédol. I can’t read French but based on a Google translation of Frédol’s text I believe he only described the general appearance of the cachalot when he likened it to a tadpole. Still an insult but a bit more reasonable.