Reading spines up or down?

Among the minor cultural differences that separate countries is the question of the orientation of the text on the spine of books that identify their title and author when conveniently packed on book shelves: going up

Les Misérables   Der Zauberberg

proudly as French and German books, or going down

The Big Sleep  Il Principe

as English or American or Italian books? When books are ordered by topic or author, this leads to rather uncomfortable switches of orientation of the head as one scans bookshelves for the right oeuvre to read during a lazy afternoon.

Actually, these are more or less contemporary examples, and it seems that these conventions change with time. For instance, I have an old English paperback from 1951 where the title goes up instead of down:

The Greeks
The Greeks

Another from 1962 goes down. When did the change happen? And why? And how do other languages stack up? Is it rather a country-based preference? Are the titles of Italian-language books printed in Switzerland going up (like the French and German ones do), or down? And does this affect the direction in which shivers run along your spine when reading a scary story of murdered baronets in abandoned ruins?

(There’s of course the solution, admittedly snobbish, of writing the title and author’s name horizontally

Le comte de Monte Cristo
Le comte de Monte Cristo

as the Pléiade does, for instance).

Latest adventures

The last two weeks were quite eventful…

First I spent four days in China for the conference in honor of N. Katz’s 71st birthday. I was lucky with jetlag and was able to really enjoy this trip, despite its short length. The talks themselves were quite interesting, even if most of them were rather far from my areas of expertise. I talked about my work with W. Sawin on Kloosterman paths; the slides are now online.

I only had time to participate in one of the excursions, to the Forbidden City,

Forbidden City
Forbidden City

were I took many pictures of Chinese Dragons…

Chinese Dragon
Chinese Dragon

That same evening, with F. Rodriguez Villegas and C. Hall, I explored a small part of the Beijing subway,

Subway map
Subway map

trying to interpret and recognize various Chinese characters, before spending a fair amount of time in a huge bookstore


(where I got some comic books in Chinese for fun).

Upon coming back on Thursday, I first found in my office the two volumes of the letters between Serre and Tate that the SMF has just published, and which I had ordered a few days before taking the plane. Reading the beginning of the first volume was very enjoyable in the train on Friday morning from Zürich to Lausanne, where the traditional Number Theory Days were organized this year. All talks were excellent again — we’re now looking forward to next year’s edition, which will be back in Zürich! And I’ll write later some more comments about the Serre-Tate letters…

And then, from last Monday to Friday, we had in Zürich the conference “Analytic Aspects of Number Theory”, organized by H. Iwaniec, Ph. Michel and myself with the help of FIM. It was great fun, and there were really superb and impressive talks. One interesting experience was the talk by J. Bellaïche : for health reasons, he couldn’t travel to Zürich, but we organized his talk by video (using a software called Scopia), watching it from a teleconference room at ETH. This went rather well.


For those readers who understand spoken French (or simply appreciate the musicality of the language) and are interested in the history of mathematics, I warmly recommend listening to the recording of a recent programme of Radio France Internationale entitled “Pourquoi Bourbaki ?” In addition to the dialogue of Sophie Joubert with Michèle Audin and Antoine Chambert-Loir, one can hear some extracts of older émissions with L. Schwartz, A. Weil, H. Cartan, J. Dieudonné, for instance.

An ideal hypothetical list

A few months ago, for purposes that will remain clouded in mystery for the moment, I had the occasion to compose an ideal list of rare books of various kinds, which do not necessarily exist.

Here is what I came up with:

(i) “The Elements of the Most Noble game of Whist; elucidated and discussed in all details”, by A. Bandersnatch, Duke Dimitri, N. Fujisaki, A. Grothendieck, Y. Grünfiddler, J. Hardy, Jr., B. Kilpatrick and an Anonymous Person.

(ii) “Vorlesungen über das Ikosaeder und die Auflösung der Gleichungen vom funften Grade”, by F. Klein; with barely legible annotations and initialed “HW” on the first page.

(iii) “Histoire Naturelle”, Volume XXXIII: Serpens, by George Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, edition of 1798; initialed “A.K.” on the title page.

(iv) “Chansons populaires de Corse, Navarre et Outre-Quiévrain”, collected and commented by P. Lorenzini.

(v) “奥の細道” (Oku no Hosomichi), by Matsuo Bashò.

(vi) “On the care of the pig”, by R.T. Whiffle, KBE.

(vii) “La Chartreuse de Parme”, by Stendhal.

(viii) “Der tsoyberbarg”, by T. Mann; Yiddish translation by I.B. Singer of “Der Zauberberg”.

(ix) “Les problèmes d’un problème”, by P. Ménard; loose manuscript.

(x) Opera Omnia of L. Euler, volumes 1, 2, 7, 11, 13, 23, 24, 30, 56, 62, 64, 65 and 72.

(xi) “Discorsi sopra la seconda deca di Tito Livio”, by N. Macchiavelli.

(xii) “An account of the recent excavations of the Metropolitan Museum at Khróuton, in the vicinity of Uqbar”, by E.E. Bainville, OBE.

(xiii) Die Annalen der Physik, volumes 17, 18, 23 and 25.

(xiv) “Diccionaro y gramática de la lengua Tehuelve”, anonymous; attributed on the second page to “a Humble Jesuit of Rank”.

(xv) “Le roi cigale”, French translation by Jacques Mont–Hélène of an anonymous English romance.

(xvi) “Mémoires du Général Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo”, by himself, with an Appendix containing the “Journal historique du blocus de Thionville en 1815, et des sièges de cette ville, Sierck et Rodemack en 1815”.

(xvii) “Le Comte Ory”, full orchestral score of the opera by G. Rossini with Libretto by E. Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson.

(xviii) “Absalom, Absalom”, by W. Faulkner; first edition, dedicated To R.C. on the second page.

(xix) “Ficciones”, by J-L. Borges, third edition with page 23 missing.

(xx) “Die Gottardbahn in kommerzieller Beziehung”, by G. Koller, W. Schmidlin, and G. Stoll.

(xxi) “The etchings of the Master Rembrandt van Rijn, faithfully reproduced in the original size”, anonymous.

(xxii) “The memoirs of General S.I. Kemidov”, by Himself.

(xxiii) “Catalogue raisonné des œuvres d’Anton Fiddler”, by W.B. Appel.

(xxiv) “Zazie dans le métro”, by R. Queneau.

(xxv) “The mystery of the green Penguin”, by E. Mount.

(xxvi) “Χοηφόροι” (The Libation Bearers), by Aeschylus; an edition printed in Amsterdam in 1648.

(xxvii) “The Saga of Harald the Unconsoled”, Anonymous, translated from the Old Norse by W.B. Appel.

(xxviii) “Uncle Fred in the Springtime”, by P.G. Wodehouse.

(xxix) “The Tempest”, by W. Shakespeare.

(xxx) “The 1926 Zürich International Checkers Tournament, containing all games transcribed and annotated according to a new system”, by S. Higgs.

(xxxi) “A day at the Oval”, by G.H. Hardy.

(xxxii) “Harmonices Mundi”, by J. Kepler, initialed I.N on the second page.

(xxxiii) “Stories of cats and gulls”, by G. Lagaffe.

(xxxiv) “Traité sur la possibilité d’une monarchie générale en Italie”, by N. Faria; loose handwritten manuscript on silk.

(xxxv) “Broke Down Engine”, 78 rpm LP record, interpreted by Blind Willie McTell.

(xxxvi) “Les plages de France, Belgique et Hollande”, by A. Unepierre.

(xxxvii) “La Légende du Cochon Voleur et de l’Oiseau Rageur”, traditional folktale, translated from the Arabic by P. Teilhard de Chardin.

(xxxviii) “Discours des Girondins”, collected and transcribed by a parliamentary committee under the auspices of the “Veuves de la révolution française”, published by Van-den-Broeck, Bruxelles in 1862.