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Posts Tagged ‘literature

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”*…

 

Books hopper

As the year draws to a close, some of us like to look forward, and some of us backward—and some way backward. Last month, while working on the not-at-all-controversial Books That Defined the Decades series, I was often surprised by the dissonance between the books that sold well in any given year and the books that we now consider relevant, important, or illustrative of the time. I repeatedly regaled my colleagues with fun and interesting facts like: “Did you know that in 1940 the best-selling book of the year was How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn? That was also the year The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Native Son came out!” They made me stop eventually, and so I compiled all my comments into this very piece…

Some general takeaways:

1. The biggest bestsellers of any given year are not necessarily the books we remember 20, 30, 50, or 100 years later. (Something to remember when your own book goes on sale.)

2. Sometimes books take a little while to work themselves onto the bestseller list. Books suspiciously absent from the list of the year they were published sometimes show up in the next year, likely due to paperback releases and/or word of mouth (or they may have simply been published too late in the year to compete with the spring books).

3. People like to read the same authors year after year.

4. John Grisham owned the 90s.

5. There are so very many books, and we have forgotten almost all of them.

Here’s to remembering (the good ones, at least)…

A century of best-seller lists, compared with the books published in the same years that are well-remembered today: “Here are the biggest fiction best-sellers of the last 100 years (and what everyone read instead).”

* Haruki Murakami

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As we turn the page, we might spare a thought for Henry James III; he died on this date in 1947.  The son of philosopher and psychologist William James and the nephew of novelist Henry, he was an accomplished attorney, administrator (manager of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and Chair of TIAA), and diplomat (e.g., a member of the Versailles Peace Conference).

But like his famous elders, he also wrote– in his case, biographies, for one of which (a life of Charles W. Eliot) he won the Pulitzer Prize.

HJ III

Henry James III holding his sister, Mary Margaret, in his lap (source)

 

Written by LW

December 13, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”*…

 

Brody-Bathtubs-Over-Broadway

Steve Young, who obsessively collects LPs of industrial musicals, at first found them “unintentionally hilarious,” but in addition to absurdity they often contain the sincere and authentic spark of creative imagination.

 

From the title alone, it’s obvious that “Bathtubs Over Broadway,” a new documentary by Dava Whisenant… will be a delight. Its subject is the industrial musical—plays produced by corporations for their employees to enjoy at nationwide or regional sales meetings and conventions. Steve Young, who was, for more than twenty years, a writer for David Letterman, became obsessed, in the mid-nineties, with these shows—in particular, with LPs of them, which were pressed solely to be distributed to employees as souvenirs. The ostensible subject of “Bathtubs Over Broadway” is the amusement value of these exotic, eccentric by-products of show business, whose kitschy pleasures include celebrations of automobiles, dog food, and disposable blood-absorbing liners for the operating room, in a number that rhymes “hysterectomy” and “appendectomy.” But the overarching and underlying question that the film poses is nothing less than: What is art? And, for that matter, is the conventional definition of good art too narrow to account for the merits of such works as these?…

Many classic works of art are, in effect, commercials, from Pindar’s epinician, or victory, odes to Bach’s church cantatas. For that matter, plays and movies aren’t immune from propagandistic values, whether imposed on the artists or shared by them. It’s a mark of mediocrity, on the part of an artist or, for that matter, of a critic, to judge works by their ostensible subjects rather than by their approach to them…

Richard Brody on the new documentary Bathtubs Over Broadway (it opens in some cities today), and on the aesthetic questions that it raises: “Can a musical sponsored by a toilet manufacturer be a work of art?

* Pablo Picasso

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As we know art when we see it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1566 that Ralph Roister Doister was first publicly performed at Eton (or so some scholars argue; the exact date is not universally agreed); it was published the following year.  Written in 1552 (again, scholars believe) by London schoolmaster Nicholas Udall, it was probably performed earlier by his own students.

In any case, scholars agree that Ralph Roister Doister was the first comedy (as opposed to “work with comedic elements”) to be written in the English language.

Ralph_Roister_Doister

Illustration in English Plays, by Henry Morley, Cassell’s Library of English Literature, 1891. Caption says from a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger in Desiderius Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium (The Praise of Folly) (1515/16).

source

 

Written by LW

November 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Who ever converses among old books will be hard to please among the new”*…

 

old book

There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed…

All four are on display at “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London.  An appreciation of “the ineffable magic of four little manuscripts of Old English poetry” at “What Do Our Oldest Books Say About Us?

* William Temple

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As we turn the pages with care, we might spare a thought for Quintus Horatius Flaccus– Horace– the Roman soldier and poet, born on this date in 65 BCE…  Horace’s Satires, Epodes, Odes, and Epistles, have earned him a reputation akin to Virgil’s…  He was in some ways the antithesis of earlier honoree (and champion of the Republic) Cicero; an apologist for empire, Horace was Augustus’ Poet Laureate.  He may have coined, but was in any case the first to use “carpe diem” in a recorded setting.   And he offered this good advice: “Add a sprinkling of folly to your long deliberations.”

200px-Quintus_Horatius_Flaccus

Horace, as imagined by Anton von Werner

source

Written by LW

November 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”*…

 

baptism

The baptism of Christ, from The Chronology of Ancient Nations, 1307

 

Today, it is taken for granted that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own calendars and celebrate their own New Year’s Day. But for most practical matters, including government, commerce and science, the world employs a single common calendar. Thanks to this, it is possible to readily translate dates from the Chinese calendar, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the same chronological system that underlies the histories of, say, Vietnam or Australia.

This single global calendar enables us to place events everywhere on a single timeline. Without it, temporal comparisons across cultures and traditions would be impossible. It is no exaggeration to say that this common understanding of time and our common calendar system are the keys to world history.

It was not always the case…

For most of history, different peoples, cultures and religious groups have lived according to their own calendars. Then, in the 11th century, a Persian scholar attempted to create a single, universal timeline for all humanity: “The Invention of World History.”

Then visit “the Wiki History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less.”

* L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

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As we look to the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Oxford mathematician and amateur photographer Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson– aka Lewis Carroll– delivered a handwritten and hand-illustrated manuscript called “Alice’s Adventures Under Ground” to 10-year-old Alice Liddell.  The original (on display at the British Library) was the basis of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland… which was published exactly one year later, on this date in 1865.

 source

 

“We need ghost stories because we, in fact, are the ghosts”*…

 

Cynthia-Zarin-Originial-Master-of-Ghost-Stories

Lost keys, a snagged button, a wine glass upset—you spilled it, didn’t you, the wine didn’t spill itself? “The Complete Ghost Stories,” by M. R. James, first published between 1904 and 1935—and reprinted [last] year by Macmillan, in a hardbound pocket edition, perfect for reading in a stalled subway car—incorporate what the author, the master of the modern ghost story, called “the malice of inanimate objects.” Might that razor, so benign every other morning, know something? Does ill will ferret out, precisely, where we live? The stories start quietly. A young man inherits a country house from an unknown uncle; a print collector finds himself drawn to an oddly undistinguished engraving; a provincial hotel doesn’t—or does it?—have a room numbered thirteen. The humdrum, muffled tone of these stories transmits an atmosphere of almost superannuated ordinariness—fusty antiquarians, old books, the slightly dampish vistas of university life, train platforms in out-of-the-way stations—places and people that mimic the life of the author himself, until they don’t…

Montague Rhodes James was an acclaimed intellectual who published a handful of stories (from short quips to long, academic papers) that are widely regarded as the basis upon which modern ghost stories are built. Not entirely for the narratives, but rather the topics: his stories are unpredictable and based on haunted objects, unfamiliar beings and odd circumstances.  Cynthia Zarin, of The New Yorker, writes “Scholarly efforts have been made to unearth the early trauma that would account for James’ succession of wraiths, screeches, hairy faces, and skeletal hands creeping out from under the pillow. He reported his own childhood as happy.”  Just in time for Halloween, more at “The original master of ghost stories.”

[TotH]

* Stephen King, Danse Macabre

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As we muse on the macabre, we might send frightening birthday greetings to Elsa Sullivan Lanchester; she was born on this date in 1902.  An accomplished and acclaimed actress whose career spanned several decades (and many genre), she is surely best remembered for– and as– The Bride of Frankenstein.

Elsa-Lanchester source

 

Written by LW

October 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“When I got my library card, that’s when my life began”*…

 

Orlean-Libraries

I grew up in libraries, or at least it feels that way. My family lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, about a mile from the brick-faced Bertram Woods Branch of the Shaker Heights Public Library system. Throughout my childhood, starting when I was very young, my mother drove me there a couple of times a week. We walked in together, but, as soon as we passed through the door, we split up, each heading to our favorite section. The library might have been the first place that I was ever given independence. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to go off on my own. Then, after a while, my mother and I reunited at the checkout counter with our finds. Together, we waited as the librarian pulled out each date card and, with a loud chunk-chunk, stamped a crooked due date on it, below a score of previous crooked due dates that belonged to other people, other times.

Our visits were never long enough for me—the library was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the shelves, scanning the spines of the books until something happened to catch my eye. Those trips were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-war between what I desired and what she was willing to buy me; in the library, I could have anything I wanted. On the way home, I loved having the books stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight, their Mylar covers sticking to my thighs. It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for; such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read. We talked about the order in which we were going to read them, a solemn conversation in which we planned how we would pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until the books were due. We both thought that all the librarians at the Bertram Woods branch were beautiful. For a few minutes, we discussed their beauty. My mother then always mentioned that, if she could have chosen any profession, she would have chosen to be a librarian, and the car would grow silent for a moment as we both considered what an amazing thing that would have been…

In an excerpt from her newest, The Library Book, the superb Susan Orlean on the crucial treasures of the public library:  “Growing up in the library.”

* Rita Mae Brown

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As we check it out, we might send learned birthday greetings to Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, better known simply as Erasmus; he was born on this date in 1466 (though some sources place his birth two days later).  A Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, translator, and theologian, probably best remembered for his book In Praise of Folly, he was the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance, the first editor of the New Testament (“Do unto others…”), and an important figure in patristics and classical literature.  Among fellow scholars and philosophers he was– and is– known as the “Prince of the Humanists.”

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger

source

 

Written by LW

October 26, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague”*…

 

resuscitation-London-Humane-Society_Wellcome

 

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, people worried about the difficulty in measuring the line between life and death. Fearful that loved ones would be buried alive, people attached strings and bells to a finger of a person who appeared dead, so that they could detect any movement and commence or continue resuscitation.

There were also societies dedicated to the resuscitation of people who appeared to be dead, for example, the Institution of the Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Humane Society) founded in 1788 and modeled after the Royal Humane Society of London founded in 1774. The Humane Society’s main purpose was to revive those apparently dead. In Boston and along the coastline, their concern lay first and foremost with the drowned. The London Society’s founders claimed that it had been successful in reviving 790 out of 1300 people “apparently dead from drowning.” The men who brought the Institution to Massachusetts hoped to replicate this effort, restoring loved ones to their friends and family members…

Early attempts to find the line between life and death: “Who is dead?

* Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”

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As we take our pulses, we might spare a thought for Sir Richard Blackmore; he died on this date in 1729.  A physician of note, he argued that observation and the physician’s experience should take precedence over any Aristotelian ideals or hypothetical laws, and he rejected Galen’s humour theory. He wrote on plague, smallpox, and consumption.

But he is best remembered for his passion, poetry.  A supporter of the Glorious Revolution, he wrote Prince Arthur, an Heroick Poem in X Books, a celebration of William III.  Later he authored Blackmore produced The Nature of Man, a physiological/theological poem on climate and character (featuring the English climate as the best), and Creation: A Philosophical Poem.

While he was praised in his time by John Dennis, Joseph Addison, and, later, Samuel Johnson, history’s verdict has been written by his detractors– main among them Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Dryden– all of whom found Blackmore’s poetry “grandeloquent,” “stupid,” and “leaden.”

(Readers can judge for themselves at the Internet Archive’s collection of his work.)

440px-Richard_Blackmore source

 

Written by LW

October 9, 2018 at 10:01 pm

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