Posts Tagged ‘Road Atlas of the Soviet Union’

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part two

August 17, 2019

The Index of Possibilities

I haven’t looked at this for years: it’s a relic from my hippy days, a British version of the famous Whole Earth Catalog, an encyclopaedia for those alternative times, with pointers and links to all sorts of esoteric stuff, as well as the very early green movements, different spiritualities and radical therapy. It was a bible and an eye-opener for me back in my younger days.

Road Atlas of the Soviet Union 

Back in the days of the Soviet Union and its other socialist allies, consumer goods were in very short supply; this caused problems if you wanted a present for someone. You might have a really good idea of what you’d like to give, and no chance of buying it. Which is how I ended up with a road atlas of the Soviet Union as a present from a relative at some point in the 1970s. The idea that I’d ever get to drive on any of the roads in that country was a bit of a joke for starters. Then you think of the size of the country and regard the slimness of this volume and you get a better picture of the problem. Vast tracts of the country do not appear at all. Secrecy? No, just no roads at all. In some regions you can see a single road that proceeds for hundreds of miles, before stopping, ending: you make that journey all the way to the back of beyond, before realising that you then have to turn around and return the exact same way… Truly, this is a surreal book in so many ways.

I love it; it’s a very well-worn and well-used companion to travel books about Russia, and I supplemented it with a larger more general and larger scale Soviet atlas a decade or so ago

Sunday Compline

This is the slimmest volume in my library. I’ve written about my love of this religious office which brings the day to a close here. And, although I have a great nostalgia for the vanished Latin services and rituals of my childhood days – not out of any sense of belief, but for the spiritual feelings they still awaken for me – this is in English. Way back in the mid-1960s, shortly after services were done into the vernacular, a version of compline appeared, a decent translation using the same music, and there was a phase in the Catholic life of England when this service was much performed in churches. Only a couple of years ago I tracked down this copy at a secondhand bookshop in Edinburgh, and was happy to pay ninety times the original cover price to own it. It’s a nicely produced and illustrated booklet, the same as the one we used to use all those years ago.

Baedeker’s Northern Germany

In the days when travel was a serious business and involved careful planning, Baedeker’s guidebooks were a must. This one is pre-First World War, and I originally bought it for its marvellous maps, but it’s also a mine of useful information about places that were formerly part of Poland and would become again after the war, as well as places that eventually became part of People’s Poland after 1945. The maps of Danzig (as was) I found very useful when reading Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, following Oscar’s adventures and peregrinations around his home city. There was also a Baedeker’s Russia from 1914, which was never widely distributed or sold because war broke out; it’s now one of the rarest travel guides there is, fetching hundreds of pounds and more. This, and the bizarre Nazi vanity project that was Baedeker’s Generalgouvernement (a tourist guide to the rump state created from the remains of Poland as a dumping-ground for unwanted people and site of extermination camps), are, fortunately, available free on the marvellous Internet Archive website.

Vassily Peskov: Eremites Dans Le Taiga

I was astonished when I originally came across a reference to this story, I think via a link to the Smithsonian website: a small family of Old Believers, a Russian sect, had lived completely apart from the entire world, in the depths of Siberia, for over forty years, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, when Soviet surveyors noticed signs of life in a remote area thought to be uninhabited. The story of the family’s existence and survival is almost beyond belief, and yes, I know that Russia is a truly enormous country, but to have vanished for so long in the twentieth century! The account was written by one of those who re-discovered and helped the family, and yes, I found it in French first…

Bonus: English as She is Spoken (A Jest in Sober Earnest)

Many years ago there was a concert interval talk on Radio 3 featuring extracts from this truly crazy book, which is a phrasebook and guide to conversation in English for Portuguese students, written at some point towards the end of the 19th century. The only problem is that the Portuguese author didn’t actually speak English, but somehow complied the book using a French phrasebook and a dictionary: a very high percentage of the English phrases therefore verge on complete drivel, and the book is a hoot. I found a reprint a long while ago and look through it for a laugh every now and then; if you’re interested it’s downloadable from the Internet Archive.

Strange books in my library…

December 6, 2014

I don’t know how I found myself thinking about bizarre books, but I do have a few in my library…

Adolf in Blunderland is what the title suggests,  a parody. It features Hitler and his henchmen in 1939, complete with illustrations in imitation of Tenniel’s for Alice in Wonderland, and marvellous rewritings of some of the songs and poems. I came across it in a secondhand bookshop over forty years ago and was moved to pay the then princely sum of five shillings for it (that’s 25p if you don’t do real money). I think I’ve only ever come across one other copy since then.

Many years ago a Polish relative presented me with a copy of a Road Atlas of the Soviet Union (it was often hard to find interesting gifts for people in those days) and it has become a treasured possession. You might expect, what with Russia being an enormous country, that this would be a weighty and considerable tome, but it’s actually quite modest. What stuns you is the vast areas missing from it. In the front of a normal road atlas you usually have an index grid of the country, to show you where to turn to a particular region, and in this one there are vast gaps. It’s not because of censorship, either, just that huge areas have no roads, and you either get to them by air or boat or not at all, because there’s nothing there. You can drive down a road which will have no turn-offs for five, six, seven hundred kilometres. There will be a couple of petrol stations marked, and then the road will end in a small town. And then you would have to turn round and drive all the way back…

Many years ago I heard a short talk on Radio 3 based on a phrasebook published in the nineteenth century in Portugal, for Portuguese people wanting to converse in English. Nothing remarkable, until you realise that the author couldn’t speak a word of English… he had translated it all from a French phrasebook using a dictionary, and it made very little sense at all. A shortened version of that book was actually printed in Victorian times and has been reprinted occasionally since; I came by one many years ago, and it’s a falling-over-and-crying-with-laughter one. You can track it down on the Internet Archive – English As She is Spoke, or A Jest in Sober Earnest.

The amazing people at Mapywig – the Polish Military Geographical institute – saved me a great deal of money by scanning and making available online a book I’d wanted to see for years. Baedeker’s Guides have been famous tourist guides for many years. In 1943 the company was ordered to publish one to the Generalgouvernement, the fiefdom of Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of the rump of Poland that was not allowed to be called Poland. So, carefully written in proper Nazi ideological style, but unfortunately having still to mention things like the Polish language which hadn’t been eradicated, would-be German tourists are guided through the towns and cities – bombed to ruins, quite often, and the scenes of random massacres, ghettos and mayhem – told how to manage, which hotels to stay in and how to cope with the natives. It was a vanity project, the book is very rare, and the Poles hanged Frank after the war.

Do you have any weirdness in your library?

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