Category Archives: Literature

How Did O. Henry Get His Pen Name?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaAmerican short story writer O. Henry was born William Sidney Porter (1862-1910). Incidentally, in 1898, Porter changed the spelling of his middle name from Sidney to Sydney. His short stories feature colorful characters, skillful unfolding of plot, realistic and witty dialogue, and often with a distinctive surprise plot twist ending (often referred to as the “O. Henry twist”). He was a prolific writer, having written more than 600 short stories, published in 13 separate collections of short stories. In the early 1900s, Porter was one of the most widely read and admired storytellers in the country. Two of his best-known short stories are the “The Last Leaf” and the holiday classic “The Gift of the Magi.”

Many people often wonder how Porter came up with the pen name “O. Henry” that seems to have no connection with his birth name, his place of birth (Greensboro, North Carolina), or his professions (pharmacist, bank teller, bookkeeper, and journalist). During his writing career, Porter used many pen names, including James L. Bliss, T.B. Down, Howard Clark, Olivier Henry, O. Henry, and S.H. Peters. Porter used the pseudonym for the first time in December 1899 for the short story entitled “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” There are several accounts on the internet that attribute the pen name to individuals he met during his prison term in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. (He was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling funds from a bank where he worked as a bank teller and bookkeeper; he served only three, being released early for good behavior — and writing really great short stories). Another common fallacy is that he was named after a candy bar (read below). Yet another story claims that he derived the pen name from the name of a girlfriend’s cat. There is no evidence for any of these explanations.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1909 ( entitled “O. Henry on Himself, Life, and Other Things”), Porter gave this definitive account:
It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: “I’m going to send out some stuff. I don’t know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one.” He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. “Here we have our notables,” said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, “That’ll do for a last name,” said I. “Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.” “Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?” asked my friend. “Good,” said I, “O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.”…. “A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, ‘O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver.’ And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.”

Despite some accounts on the internet, O. Henry was not named after the Oh Henry! candy bar introduced by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago in 1920. Nor was the Oh Henry! candy bar named after the author. According to Nestle, this is the official story of the naming of the chocolate candy bar: “Way back when, there was a little candy shop owned by George Williamson. A young fellow by the name of Henry who visited this shop on a regular basis became friendly with the young girls working there. They were soon asking favors of him, clamoring Oh Henry, will you do this?, and Oh Henry, will you do that? So often did Mr. Williamson hear the girls beseeching poor young Henry for help, that when he needed a name for a new candy bar, he called it OH HENRY! and filed a trademark application the following year.” Now that would have made a wonderful O. Henry short story, don’t you think?

The O. Henry Award, established in 1918, is an annual American award given to short stories of exceptional merit was named after the author. The award, presented by the Society of Arts and Sciences, promotes the art of the short story. His love of language and wordplay was the inspiration for the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships established in 1978 that celebrates the often-maligned but wickedly funny pun. Punsters from around the globe travel to the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas each May to compete in the Punniest of Show, PunSlingers, and Most Viable Punster competitions.

One of the most common questions that librarians and booksellers hear is: “where can I find O. Henry? Is it organized under O or H?” The proper alphabetization of O. Henry is under “H” not “O” — remember the name is not spelled “O’Henry” but rather “O. Henry” as in Olivier Henry. Still, many bookstores stock O. Henry’s books in the “O” section of fiction. Oh Henry!

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For further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._Henry
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0377958/bio
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9C01EFDA153EE733A25757C0A9629C946897D6CF


The Most Influential Novels of the 20th Century

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn 1998 the Library Journal asked its members: what is the most influential novel of the 20th century? And by influence, they meant impact on the larger world or on their own lives. Librarians love lists, just as much as they love books. They came up with a list of 150 titles. Here are the first 25 of the most influential novels:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
3. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
7. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
8. Animal Farm by George Orwell
9. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
10. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
11. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
12. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
14. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
15. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
16. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
17. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
18. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
19. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
20. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
21. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
22. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
23. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
24. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
25. My Antonia by Willa Cather

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For further reading: http://www.hcpl.net/read/most-influential-fiction-20th-century


The Most Controversial Books of All Time

alex atkins bookshelf booksNothing increases a book’s popularity and its sales like the controversy that arises when it becomes banned. Tell a person, especially an adolescent, that you can’t read something — and chances are high that they will find a copy — by hook or by crook — and read it. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t read — Goddamnit!” Call it an act of defiance, insatiable curiosity, or intellectual freedom; it’s inevitable. But that sheer force of will demonstrated by readers young and old has not stopped narrow-minded, dogmatic librarians, teachers, and school administrators to remove books from the shelves due a wide range of issues — like, sex, racism, profanity, sex (again), blasphemy, obscenity, drugs, cruelty, violence, sex (did we mention it?), and religious views — throughout the decades. Here are 25 of the most controversial books of all time (controversial issues in parenthesis). Most have been banned at one time or another. Go out and read one of these books today!

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (sex with a minor)
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (rape, drug abuse, racism, profanity)
3. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (brutal, graphic murder, sadism)
4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (sex, profanity, communism)
5. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (homosexuality)
6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (slavery)
7. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (sex, profanity, sex, drugs, sex)
8. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (religion)
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky (homosexuality, drugs)
10. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (ironically, banned by Soviet and Nazi regimes for being “decadent and despairing”)
11. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (dystopia)
12. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck (animal cruelty)
13. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (witchcraft)
14. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (sex, profanity)
15. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers (violence, racism)
16. Ulysses by James Joyce (sex, obscenity)
17. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (rape, sex, homosexuality)
18. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (denounced by Oprah Winfrey because author fabricated parts of his memoir)
19. Origins of the Species by Charles Darwin (blasphemy, anti-Christian)
20. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell (terrorism)
21. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (racism, profanity)
22. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Egles (communism)
23. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (profanity)
24. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (racism, banned by Malaysian and Nigerian government for negative portrayal of colonialism)
25. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland (sex)

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For further reading: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn Sova
http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks
http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about
http://time.com/4505713/banned-books-week-reasons-change/?utm_content=buffer33928&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-shocking/the-25-most-controversial-books-of-all-time/


Five Fascinating Facts About English Literature

catkins-bookshelf-literatureWhen Brian Boone, a writer and editor for the trivia-packed Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series, wrote English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism, a lively and entertaining romp through seven centuries of Britain’s greatest writers and their works, he stumbled upon five fascinating facts.

1. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a reversed Latinized version of his real first and middle names (he was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The clever author translated Charles Lutwidge into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, and then back to English, Carroll Lewis; then he simply reversed their order to Lewis Carroll. 

2. Frankenstein was the first vampire novel were the result of a writing contest. The scene: a house on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The guests: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelly, and John William Polidori. On a dark, stormy day, to pass the time away, they — what else? — read dark German stories, like the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. This, in turn, inspired Byron to propose a ghost story contest. The result? Shelley famous novella, Frankenstein, and Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre — both seminal works that created the monster and romantic vampire genres.

3. George Orwell (born Eric Blair), author of the classics Animal Farm and 1984, was ahead of his time, not only with respect to his insights into the modern world, but also blogging. Orwell, according to Boone, pioneered the concept of writing about a wide variety of rather mundane topics, foreshadowing the blogs of today (eg., listicles, best of lists, how-to guides, etc.) like postcards, how to make tea, and the difference between British and American pulp novels. In short, Orwell was the first blogger — before there was an internet and a real Big Brother!

4. Thanks to the efforts of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic The Lord of the Rings, the 1,000-year-old epic poem, Beowulf, is well-known and studied. In 1936, Tolkien, a professor of literature and languages at Oxford University, wrote “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that ignited a 20th century interest in the poem. Moreover, this poem is what inspired him to write fiction — without Beowulf and Grendel, we would not have Frodo and Sauron.

5. King Arthur was not English — at first. The stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, and Robin Hood did not originate in England; they originated from France and Wales. During the 8th century, Nennius, a monk, wrote the story of the warlord Arthur who led the Britons in their defense of the invading Saxons in the 5th century. It is these stories that were passed down via oral tradition in France. By the 1300s, they had been shaped into an epic poem, the inspiration for English writer Thomas Malory’s French-titled (Le Morte d’Arthur) but English-language narrative of the King Arthur legends published in 1484.

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For further reading: English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism by Brian Boone
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/5-amazing-things-learned-english-literature-writing-english-literature-101/


Novels with the Most Exclamation Points

The lively exclamation point (referred to as an exclamation mark by the Brits) was introduced in the Middle Ages (400-1400s). It evolved from Medieval scribes who wrote “io” (Latin for “joy”) at the end of a sentence as — you guessed it — an exclamation of joy (as in “My hand is cramped; thank God I have finally reached the end of copying this really boring passage from an obscure and obtuse religious treatise philosophical work that no one is going to read io”). By the late 1400s, the io evolved into its current form (the i moved about the o, and then became a line and dot) in the world of printing. By then the exclamation transitioned from conveying joy to conveying emphasis. Interestingly, although the typewriter was invented in 1868, it took more than a century, until the early 1970s, before the exclamation point had its own dedicated key. In old typewriters, one had to type a period, backspace and type an apostrophe — imagine that!

Although messages on social media are overwhelmingly peppered with exclamation points (everyone is shouting!), the general rule of thumb in formal or professional writing is to use the exclamation point sparingly; that is say, only when appropriate. And there are very few instances when an exclamation point is appropriate; specifically, used in a direct quotation of a exclamatory sentence or used after an interjection. And you typically only need one!

However, students of English are well aware that as soon as you master the rules of English grammar, you are free to break them. And there are plenty of role models in American and English literature (the poster boy, of course, is James Joyce who gives new meaning to run-on sentences devoid of punctuation). In his recently published book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, journalist Ben Blatt used data analysis to provide insight into famous authors and their works. Here are the top ten novels with the most extensive use of exclamation points!:

(Note: numbers in parentheses indicate rate of exclamation points per 100,000 words; thus, a book with a rate of 2,000 exclamation marks per 100,000 words is equivalent to about six exclamation points per page! )

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: 2,131

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: 2,102

The Chimes by Charles Dickens: 1,860

The Cricket by Charles Dickens: 1,793

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis: 1,352

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 1,351

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 1,348

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe: 1,341

Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis: 1,274

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Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt


What is the Meaning of the Ides of March?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesIn the ancient Roman calendar, before the Christian Era, every month had three named days: the Calends (or Kalends), the first day of the month when accounts were due; the Nones, the fifth or seventh day of the month; and the Ides, the middle of the month (between the 13th to 15th day). There was nothing particularly significant about the ides of January, the ides of February, and so forth.

All that changed in 1599 when William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Julius Ceasar. In Act 1, Scene 2, in a public place on March 15th, 44 BC, a soothsayer among the crowd approaches Caesar and calls out: “Caesar!… Beware the ides of March.” Caesar is not sure he has heard the man correctly, so Brutus repeats it: “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”  The soothsayer repeats the line, warning that the Roman leader’s life is in danger. But Caesar immediately dismisses him: “He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.” As we all know, Caesar should have heeded the soothsayer’s warning. In a scene filled with brutality and treachery, Caesar is surrounded by an angry mob of senators who walk up to him and stab him to death. He is stabbed a total of 23 times. As his life slips away, a feeble Caesar turns to his closest friend and ally, Marcus Junius Brutus, and utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” (you too, Brutus?), signifying the ultimate betrayal.

So from that point on, thanks to Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, the phrase “Beware the Ides of March” being linked to Caesar’s barbarous assassination, imbued upon March 15 a rather ominous and nefarious connotation that has been passed down through the centuries. However, Tom Frail, senior editor of Smithsonian magazine, notes that March 15th lives in infamy beyond Casear’s murder. He cites several events in history that occurred on that same fateful day that were filled with villainy or mortalities:

Raid on Southern England, March 15, 1360: The French raided a town in southern England and began a two-day spree of murder, rape, and pillage. King Edward III initiated a pillaging spree in France in retaliation.

Cyclone strikes Samoa, March 15, 1889: A cyclone strikes six warships that were at barber in Apia, Samoa. More than 200 sailors were killed.

Czar Nicholas II abdicates throne, March 15, 1917: Czar Nicholas II or Russia is forced to abdicate his royal throne (ending a dynasty of 304 years). A few months later, he and his family are executed.

Blizzard in Great Plains, March 15, 1941: A devastating blizzard, with 60-MPH winds, struck the northern Great Plains, killing more than 66 people.

Depletion of ozone layer, March 15, 1988: NASA reported that the ozone layer over the Northern Hemisphere has been depleted three times faster than had been predicted.

Outbreak of SARS, March 15, 2003: WHO reported a breakout of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

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For further reading: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/top-ten-reasons-to-beware-the-ides-of-march-8664107/
http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/what-are-the-ides-of-march

 


The Most Beautiful Valentine Ever Written

catkins-bookshelf-literatureChilean poet Pablo Neruda (born  Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basalto) finished a collection of sonnets, entitled One Hundred Love Sonnets in October 1959. He then penned a beautiful, moving tribute to his wife, Matilde Urrutia Neruda, to serve as the book’s introduction. In short, the tribute — not to mention the brilliant love sonnets — make it one of the most beautiful valentines ever written:

“My beloved wife, I suffered while I was writing these misnamed “sonnets”; they hurt me and caused me grief, but the happiness I feel in offering them to you is vast as a savanna. When I set this task for myself, I knew very well that down the right sides of sonnets, with elegant discriminating taste, poets of all times have arranged rhymes that sound like silver or crystal or cannonfire. But—with great humility—I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears. Walking in forests or on beaches, along hidden lakes, in latitudes sprinkled with ashes, you and I have picked up pieces of pure bark; pieces of wood subject to the comings and goings of water and the weather. Out of such softened relics, then with hatchet and machete and pocketknife, I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them. Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life.”

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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For further reading: Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda (1997)
100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda (1986)
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1993)
The Book of Love: Writers and Their Love Letters by Cathy Davidson (1992)

 

 


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