THE PENNSYLVANIA Sumerian Dictionary is one of those wonderful scholarly projects being worked on all over the land. Sumerian was the first written language, preserved on wedge-shaped clay tablets dating back as far as 3000 B.C. The land of the Sumerians was the lower Tigres-Euphrates Valley, in the area where the Iranians and Iraqis are currently at war. Sumerian, which is unrelated to any other known language, survived as a spoken tongue until about 2000 B.C. and was retained by the Babylonians as a religious language for a millennium after that.
The dictionary is being compiled by a team of six scholars, led by Drs. Ake Sjoberg and Erle Leichty, at the University Museum of Arachaeology/Anthropology of the University of Pennsylvania. The first volume, covering the letter B, was issued in 1984, and as such projects are measured, became an instant hit. The first printing of 750 copies sold out within 10 months. A second printing was ordered and is now available. The cost of the volume is $40.
The Sumerian language system resembles Chinese in that its cuneiform characters can stand either for a word or a syllable. The scholars commenced their dictionary with the letter B because that covers only about one-third as many entries as the letter A, and they wanted to deal with a small number of entries to perfect their technique. Work has been proceeding apace on the letter A, and that volume will appear next year. Sixteen others will follow. The project is expected to take 25 years to complete. A 1985 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled the scholars to buy six computers to help speed up the compilation.
When the first volume of the dictionary appeared in 1984, it received a goodly amount of newspaper publicity, and proved a boon to headline writers. My favorite: "Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning." Department of Firsts
LIBERTY: The Statue and the American Dream is a 304-page leatherbound book with 250 illustrations and old photographs covering the Statue of Liberty and related aspects of American social history. Published by the National Geographic Society for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, the volume is likely to become a collector's item, and not just because of its contents. It is the first hardbound book to be published on synthetic paper.
The new paper is made of extruded layers of polypropylene, which is then covered with materials similar to those used in mainstream papermaking. The new paper, called Kimdura, is produced in Japan by a joint venture of the Oji Paper Company and Mitsubishi Petrochemical and is marketed in North and Central America by Kimberly-Clark.
Kimdura costs about twice as much as regular book paper, but has characteristics that make it attractive for certain publishing ventures. Because the sheet is nonabsorbent, ink stays on the surface, producing a sharper image suitable for the graphic arts and some book projects. According to Publishers Weekly, the artwork in the National Geographic volume was "extremely sharp across a range of tones," while "colors are astonishingly faithful and reproduce subtleties with fidelity."
Among the characteristics of Kimdura is that it is waterproof, a fact that made it useful for an earlier Kimdura volume called Key to North American Waterfowl, created by a gentleman called Stewart Furlong, president of the book publishing division of the WWF Paper Corporation. He used Kimdura paper for both the cover and inside pages of the 32-page guide. Illustrator Jack Schroeder did the drawings and Stephen R. Wylie, curator of birds at the St. Louis Zoo, wrote the text. The booklet, with the trademark Perma-Guide, is frequently displayed submerged in a jar of water at hunting equipment and sporting goods outlets and some bookstores..
If Kimdura establishes itself, it may require a change in the terminology applied to paper. Paper thickness has traditionally been measured in ream poundage.. The type of Kimdura is referred to by its thickness in microns.
Some problems seem to loom for the new technology, though. Kimberly-Clark recommends that ink be specially formulated for use on Kimdura, and printers need retraining to handle it on press. And if the press temperature rises over 175 degrees fahrenheit, Kimdura stretches. I can see it now -- a press release from a publisher: "The date of the new Jean Auel novel has been postponed. It stretched." The Feminist Press
THERE IS something different about recent publications of the Feminist Press -- such as the four newly-issued volumes called The Defiant Muse, anthologies of feminist poems from the Middle Ages to the present in Spanish, French, German and Italian with English translations. Look at the title page, and you will see that the publisher is now officially designated as The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. Therein lies a tale that began 16 years ago in Baltimore.
At that time, Florence Howe, now director of the press, was teaching English at Goucher College and was a member of feminist groups in the area. There were complaints from some group members that no children's books were available encouraging girls to become physicians. With volunteer help pledged from local women, Howe published two children's books on the subject, and the Feminist Press was born. "For years," says Howe, "Judy Mankowitz, who now has a doctorate in history and teaches history and women's studies at Goucher and Towson State, shipped and invoiced all our books from her garage in Columbia, Maryland."
By the end of 1986, the Feminist Press will have published 120 books (including 15 children's books). Of the total, 75 are still in print, a very high proportion for a contemporary publisher. Along the way, the Feminist Press has become something of a specialist in rediscovering almost-forgotten books written by women and has become a main supplier for women's studies courses across the country.
A year after the press began, Howe moved to the Faculty of the State University of Old Westbury on Long Island, and the editorial offices moved with her. In 1972, the press had its first hit, Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis, a tale of working-class women, first published anonomously in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861. It had been rediscovered by the writer Tillie Olsen who discovered the identity of the author. Life in the Iron Mills has sold 45,000 copies and gone through nine editions in the intervening years. Last year, the press brought out a new edition, adding two other stories by Davis.
The Feminist Press was invited to move its offices to New York City last year by the City University and is now housed in a building on the upper East Side. Some administrators and faculty members apparently hope it will become the basis for a mainstream press for the City University, and Florence Howe is joining the faculty of the university's graduate school while retaining her publishing duties. In the Margin
BILL COSBY'S book Fatherhood, a humorous examination of the trials and tribulations of being a parent (see review, page 3) has fetched a hefty $1.6 million from Berkley, which will release the paper version in 1987 . . . In July, Random House will publish Virginia: A History and Guide, by Tim Mulligan, illustrated by Stan Skardinsky. The 256-page book will sell for $8.95 in paper . . . The 30th volume in the Library of America series -- the collected works of the country's foremost writers -- has just been published. The 1,328-page book includes four novels by Edith Wharton -- The House of Mirth, The Reef, The Custom of the Century and The Age of Innocence. Editor of the volume, which is $27.50 at bookstores, is R.W.B. Lewis of Yale.