Category Archives: Literature

What Do Famous Literary Characters Actually Look Like?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureOne of the best aspects of reading is that your imagination gets to play casting director for all the characters in a novel. Sure, the author provides some details, but ultimately, it is your imagination that is the brush that paints the canvas. Each reader gets to come up with their own notion of what Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Juliet Capulet, Ebenezer Scrooge, Elizabeth Bennett, Captain Ahab, and Anna Karenina looks like. And that assumes that your virtual central casting has not been influenced by watching the films and television adaptations of the famous books that introduced their characters.

Enter New Yorker Brian Davis, a filmmaker and digital artist, who uses commercially available law enforcement software to create accurate portraits of literary characters based on the actual descriptions found in their respective novels. The software, which is used to create portraits of perpetrators based on eyewitness descriptions, taps into a large database of facial features — adding them one at a time to build a composite portrait. In an interview, Davis explains his inspiration for the literary character series, The Composites: “The series started when when I wondered if I could buy law enforcement sketch software and discovered that I could. From there I decided to do literary portraits based on text descriptions from novels, focusing on more ‘infamous’ characters who may be deserving of a police sketch.” In many cases Davis’ portraits match up with how a director has cast that character in a film; examples include, Javert (Les Miserables), Lisbeth (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary), Constance Chatterley (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Captain Ahab (Moby Dick) and Jack Torrance (The Shining). Other times, it is clear when directors cast against a character’s description in a novel. For example, in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, Norman Bates wears glasses, has sandy hair, and is plump. Anthony Perkins, who was cast as Bates, does not wear glasses, has dark hair, and is very slim. Another example is Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name. In the novel, Frankenstein looks more like a man than a halloween mask — he has wavy, wispy hair, high check bones, normal forehead and facial features — and no scars along the top of his forehead, nor bolts extruding from his neck.

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For further reading: 


Seeing the Words Fly About the Room in All Directions

alex atkins bookshelf literatureYou may not know the name of Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), a British lawyer who published his diary in 1869. What is significant about that work, titled Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence, was that it provided a window into the minds and daily lives of the key figures of the English romantic movement — William Blake, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Wordsworth. Poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne who wrote extensively about Blake noted: “Of all the records of these his latter years, the most valuable, perhaps, are those furnished by Mr. Crabb Robinson, whose cautious and vivid transcription of Blake’s actual speech is worth more than much vague remark, or than any commentary now possible to give.” Here is an excerpt of Robinson interviewing Blake about his writing process and philosophy:

“I enquired about his writings. ‘I have written more than Voltaire or Rousseau—six or seven epic poems as long as Homer, and 20 tragedies as long as Macbeth.’ He showed me his Vision (for so it may be called) of Genesis—’as understood by a Christian Visionary,’ in which in a style resembling the Bible the spirit is given. He read a passage at random. It was striking. He will not print any more. ‘I write,’ he says, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published, and the spirits can read. My MSS. of no further use. I have been tempted to burn my MSS., but my wife won’t let me.’ She is right, said I—and you have written these, not from yourself, but by a higher order. The MSS. are theirs and your property. You cannot tell what purpose they may answer unforeseen to you. He liked this, and said he would not destroy them. His philosophy he repeated—denying causation, asserting everything to be the work of God or the Devil—that there is a constant falling off from God—angels becoming devils. Every man has a devil in him, and the conflict is eternal between a man’s self and God, etc. etc. etc. He told me my copy of his songs would be 5 guineas, and was pleased by my manner of receiving this information. He spoke of his horror of money—of his turning pale when money had been offered him, etc.”

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For further reading: Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence by Henry Crabb Robinson
William Blake: A Critical Essay by Algernon Charles Swinburne

A Dictionary May Be Read an Infinite Number of Ways

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThough a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.

From The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays by W. H. Auden, English-American poet and essayist. Auden was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948 for his long poem, The Age of Anxiety. His most popular poems include “Funeral Blues,” “Refugee Blues,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and “September 1, 1939.”

Reading Is, in the Highest Sense, Exercise

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsBooks are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is nor a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, not on a few coteries of writers.

From Prose Works of Walt Whitman (1819-1892),one of the most influential American poets, considered the father of free verse. He believed that there was s symbiotic relationship between society and the poet: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” His seminal work, Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, celebrates nature and man’s relationship to it. Whitman was known for his unfettered experience of nature: he was an unabashed nudist and greatly enjoyed sunbathing in the nude.

Clichés that Famous Authors Use

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s a cliché by now: writing teachers admonishing students not to use clichés in their writing. You know the classroom spiel: using clichés reveals laziness in writing; it makes writing stale; it weakens the writing; blah, blah, blah. So cliché…. But if you read enough novels by famous writers — and you read them carefully — you will find clichés lurking unabashedly in the prose. So the next time an English teacher draws a red circle around a cliché in one of your papers that reduces your score, ask for some leniency by showing them this list. Here are common clichés that famous writers use in more than half their works:

Isaac Asimov (7 Foundation Series books): past history

Jane Austen (6 novels): with all my heart

Tom Clancy (13 novels): by a whisker

Clive Cussler (23 Dirk Pitt novels): wishful thinking

Theodore Dreiser (8 novels): thick and fast

James Joyce (3 novels): from the sublime to the ridiculous

George R. R. Martin (8 novels): black as pitch

Herman Melville (9 novels): through and through

J. K. Rowling (7 Harry Potter books): dead of night

J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Ring and The Hobbit): nick of time

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For further reading: Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt.

How To Grieve for a Lost Friend

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn the wake of the heartbreaking tragedy in Las Vegas, where 58 innocent lives perished and nearly 500 were injured, many people are struggling with shock and grief. To help us cope with the loss of a friend we can turn to religion for comfort, but we can also turn to philosophy. Let us travel back to Rome, circa 40 B.C., and the work of Seneca (born Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger). Seneca was a respected statesman (he was an advisor to Nero), dramatist (he wrote the plays Medea and Thyestes), and stoic philosopher (best known for three Consolatory works and Moral Epistles). He is considered by many scholars to be the first great Western thinker on the complicated nature and role of gratitude in human relationships. However, it was during his years of exile on the Island of Corsica (about 41-49 B.C., a period where he lost his wife, son, and father), when Seneca looked deep within his soul to find words of wisdom to comfort his family and friends in their time of need. A time, similar to the one we are facing now when our hearts are full of grief. One of his most insightful and poignant letters is Epistle 63 (titled: “On Grief for Lost Friends”), where Seneca consoles a friend, Lucilius, on the death of his friend Flaccus:

Epistle LXIII: On Grief for Lost Friends by Seneca

1. I am grieved to hear that your friend Flaccus is dead, but I would not have you sorrow more than is fitting. That you should not mourn at all I shall hardly dare to insist; and yet I know that it is the better way. But what man will ever be so blessed with that ideal steadfastness of soul, unless he has already risen far above the reach of Fortune? Even such a man will be stung by an event like this, but it will be only a sting. We, however, may be forgiven for bursting into tears, if only our tears have not flowed to excess, and if we have checked them by our own efforts. Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep, but we must not wail.

2. Do you think that the law which I lay down for you is harsh, when the greatest of Greek poets has extended the privilege of weeping to one day only, in the lines where he tells us that even Niobe took thought of food? Do you wish to know the reason for lamentations and excessive weeping? It is because we seek the proofs of our bereavement in our tears, and do not give way to sorrow, but merely parade it. No man goes into mourning for his own sake. Shame on our ill-timed folly! There is an element of self-seeking even in our sorrow.

3. “What,” you say, “am I to forget my friend?” It is surely a short-lived memory that you vouchsafe to him, if it is to endure only as long as your grief; presently that brow of yours will be smoothed out in laughter by some circumstance, however casual. It is to a time no more distant than this that I put off the soothing of every regret, the quieting of even the bitterest grief. As soon as you cease to observe yourself, the picture of sorrow which you have contemplated will fade away; at present you are keeping watch over your own suffering. But even while you keep watch it slips away from you, and the sharper it is, the more speedily it comes to an end.

4. Let us see to it that the recollection of those whom we have lost becomes a pleasant memory to us. No man reverts with pleasure to any subject which he will not be able to reflect upon without pain. So too it cannot but be that the names of those whom we have loved and lost come back to us with a sort of sting; but there is a pleasure even in this sting.

5. For, as my friend Attalus used to say: “The remembrance of lost friends is pleasant in the same way that certain fruits have an agreeably acid taste, or as in extremely old wines it is their very bitterness that pleases us. Indeed, after a certain lapse of time, every thought that gave pain is quenched, and the pleasure comes to us unalloyed.”

6. If we take the word of Attalus for it, “to think of friends who are alive and well is like enjoying a meal of cakes and honey; the recollection of friends who have passed away gives a pleasure that is not without a touch of bitterness. Yet who will deny that even these things, which are bitter and contain an element of sourness, do serve to arouse the stomach?”

7. For my part, I do not agree with him. To me, the thought of my dead friends is sweet and appealing. For I have had them as if I should one day lose them; I have lost them as if I have them still. Therefore, Lucilius, act as befits your own serenity of mind, and cease to put a wrong interpretation on the gifts of Fortune. Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given.

8. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours. Let us think how often we shall leave them when we go upon distant journeys, and how often we shall fail to see them when we tarry together in the same place; we shall thus understand that we have lost too much of their time while they were alive.

9. But will you tolerate men who are most careless of their friends, and then mourn them most abjectly, and do not love anyone unless they have lost him? The reason why they lament too unrestrainedly at such times is that they are afraid lest men doubt whether they really have loved; all too late they seek for proofs of their emotions.

10. If we have other friends, we surely deserve ill at their hands and think ill of them, if they are of so little account that they fail to console us for the loss of one. If, on the other hand, we have no other friends, we have injured ourselves more than Fortune has injured us; since Fortune has robbed us of one friend, but we have robbed ourselves of every friend whom we have failed to make.

11. Again, he who has been unable to love more than one, has had none too much love even for that one. If a man who has lost his one and only tunic through robbery chooses to bewail his plight rather than look about him for some way to escape the cold, or for something with which to cover his shoulders, would you not think him an utter fool? You have buried one whom you loved; look about for someone to love. It is better to replace your friend than to weep for him.

12. What I am about to add is, I know, a very hackneyed remark, but I shall not omit it simply because it is a common phrase: a man ends his grief by the mere passing of time, even if he has not ended it of his own accord. But the most shameful cure for sorrow, in the case of a sensible man, is to grow weary of sorrowing. I should prefer you to abandon grief, rather than have grief abandon you; and you should stop grieving as soon as possible, since, even if you wish to do so, it is impossible to keep it up for a long time.

13. Our forefathers have enacted that, in the case of women, a year should be the limit for mourning; not that they needed to mourn for so long, but that they should mourn no longer. In the case of men, no rules are laid down, because to mourn at all is not regarded as honourable. For all that, what woman can you show me, of all the pathetic females that could scarcely be dragged away from the funeral-pile or torn from the corpse, whose tears have lasted a whole month? Nothing becomes offensive so quickly as grief; when fresh, it finds someone to console it and attracts one or another to itself; but after becoming chronic, it is ridiculed, and rightly. For it is either assumed or foolish.

14. He who writes these words to you is no other than I, who wept so excessively for my dear friend Annaeus Serenus[5] that, in spite of my wishes, I must be included among the examples of men who have been overcome by grief. To-day, however, I condemn this act of mine, and I understand that the reason why I lamented so greatly was chiefly that I had never imagined it possible for his death to precede mine. The only thought which occurred to my mind was that he was the younger, and much younger, too, — as if the Fates kept to the order of our ages!

15. Therefore let us continually think as much about our own mortality as about that of all those we love. In former days I ought to have said: “My friend Serenus is younger than I; but what does that matter? He would naturally die after me, but he may precede me.” It was just because I did not do this that I was unprepared when Fortune dealt me the sudden blow. Now is the time for you to reflect, not only that all things are mortal, but also that their mortality is subject to no fixed law. Whatever can happen at any time can happen today.

16. Let us therefore reflect, my beloved Lucilius, that we shall soon come to the goal which this friend, to our own sorrow, has reached. And perhaps, if only the tale told by wise men is true and there is a bourne to welcome us, then he whom we think we have lost has only been sent on ahead. Farewell.

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For further reading: The Stoic Philosophy or Seneca: Essays and Letters

The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2017

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), established in 1982 by English Professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst opening sentence (also known as an “incipit”) for a novel. The name of the quasi-literary contest honors Edward George Bulwer Lytton, author of a very obscure 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford, with a very famous opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Each year, contest receives more than 10,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

The winner of the 2017 BLFC was Kat Russo of Loveland, Colorado:
The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.

The runner up was submitted by Tony Buccella of Allegany, New York:
Although in the rusty tackle-box of his mind he yearned to be a #3 buck-tail spinner, Bob knew deep down he must accept his cruel fate as a bottom bouncer rig, forever destined to scrape the muddy bottom of the river of life.

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Doug Self of Brunswick, Maine:
Detective Sam Steel stood at the crime scene staring puzzled at the chalk outline of Ms. Mulgrave’s body which was really just a stick figure with a dress, curly hair, boobs, and a smiley face because the police chalk guy had the day off.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California:
Pablo wrapped his arms around his dying hermano—the drone strike intended for cartel kingpin Miguel “El Jefe” Guzman had landed off-course, disintegrating Pablo’s casa—and as his fraternal soulmate’s life ebbed in his clutches, Pablo wailed heavenward, “He ain’t Jefe . . . he’s my brother!”

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For futher reading:
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)

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