Category Archives: Literature

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)

 

 


Why Attend an Antiquarian Book Fair?

atkins-bookshelf-booksThe 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair was recently held in Oakland. More than 200 booksellers from across the country and around the world gathered to exhibit and sell one of the most endangered species of the modern world — the printed book. Although the number of exhibitors has dwindled slightly through the decades, the level of passion for books and bookcollecting has not waned. You will never find this many book lovers and experts gathered under one roof in all the world. And no, there are no booths for iPads, Kindles, or Nooks in the exhibit hall.

For a dedicated bibliophile, the feeling of attending the International Antiquarian Book Fair is like a child stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and being overwhelmed and dazzled by every candy you can dream of. Amid neat rows of booksellers’ booths, creating mini-bookstores with their neatly arranged bookcases, are great literary and historical wonders that you can actually touch and hold in your hands. Unlike a museum’s priggish, stern docents that admonish you to “look with your eyes and not your hands,” the book fair’s exhibitors encourage you to touch and feel the treasures that sit on the bookshelves. Imagine holding a first edition of The Wasteland signed by T.S. Eliot, or a first edition of Great Expectations or a note signed by Charles Dickens. You run your finger gently across the signature, touching the very paper that the great author once held in his hand — magically you are connected in time. You may not be able to afford the books, but the experience is absolutely priceless.

The book fair is also a sprawling time machine, transporting the attendee back in time, a half century — or several centuries — to behold rare books, collectible books (eg, first editions of literary masterpieces, some even signed by the author), manuscripts, historical documents, maps, incunabula (pamphlets printed in the 15th century), photographs, and artifacts. Books cover a wide range of topics: literature, children’s literature, arts, architecture, religion, science, medicine, history, law, commerce, travel and exploration. The booksellers even set time aside for book appraisals and seminars on book related-topics throughout the three day event.

There is a misconception that the books and items sold at an antiquarian book fair require the deep pockets of a vested employee of Google or Facebook, but booksellers know that there is a broad range of collectors, and a large portion of the inventory is within the budget of most mortals with a moderate income. However, for those bibliophiles with vast disposable incomes, there are a number of very rare and precious items for sale this year:

Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies by William Shakespeare: Third folio edition, printed for Philip Chetwinde in 1664, generally regarded as the rarest of the 17th-century folio editions. An unknown number of copies is thought to have been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Value: $625,000.

The Tragedy of Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare: A rare 6th edition of the play. Value: $65,000.

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by Geoffrey Chaucer: First complete edition of his works printed in 1532. Value: $187,500.

The Republic of Plato translated by Scottish classicist Henry Spens: Bound in contemporary calf in ten volumes. Printed in 1763 by the University of Glasgow. Spens was inspired to translate Plato’s seminal work from the original Greek “to stir up the youth to the study of the Ancients.” Value: $18,000

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: First edition, third issue, printed by Chapman & Hall (London) in 1843: Value: $12,500.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle: A first edition, first issue printed in 1902: Value: $5,000.

 Facsimile Reproduction of Original Manuscript of Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 1 of a limited run of 250 copies printed in 1890. Value: $1,100.

Ulysses by James Joyce: Printed by John Lane the Bodley Head (London) in 1937). Value: $1,000.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville: Printed by Random House in 1930, featuring the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent: Value: $1,000.

Handwritten note from Charles Dickens to Charles Reade, author of The Cloister and the Hearth: Note, written on stationery from “Office of All the Year Round (No. 26 Wellington Street, Strand, London)” is signed by Charles Dickens and dated August 27, 1869. Value: $800.

The Magus by John Fowles: Printed by Jonathan Cape in 1977, signed by the author: Value $250

The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges: First edition printed in 1970 : Value: $65.

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For further reading: https://www.abaa.org/blog/post/50th-ca-book-fair-featured-items


Literature as Divine Revelation

catkins-bookshelf-literature“[L]iterature was my first intellectual love. [At age] 12, I saw my equally aged inamorata reading Pickwick Papers, how I borrowed the book from her, and then ungratefully divided my affection between her and Dickens. I save fourteen cents, bought David Copperfield, read every word of its eight hundred pages, and ranked it, for a time, next to the Bible and the Imitation of Christ. Literature became an almost divine revelation, a miraculous multiplication of the world and life.”

From the preface to Interpretations of Life: A Survey of Contemporary Literature, by Will and Ariel Durant (1970). The two historians are best known for their 11-volume magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (published between 1935 and 1975), were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968. In their 80s, they turned their attention to literature, focusing not only on the authors’ works, but on their lives; Will writes: “In almost all these studies I have found the author himself more interesting than any character in his books, and his career more instructive than the imaginary world by which he revealed or cloaked himself.”

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Daily Rituals of Writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

atkins-bookshelf-literatureColumbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez but known as “Gabo” to his fans and dubbed “Latin America’s Don Quixote” by Carlo Fuentes) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 for “his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.” The Nobel committee was referring to Marquez’s most acclaimed novels: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Love in the Time of Cholera. Some of the greatest literary influences on his writing were Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and William Faulkner. Each day, Marquez would wake up before sunrise, read a book and several newspapers, and then sit down at this desk and write for four hours. And every day of their married life, that spanned more than 55 years, his wife, Mercedes, would place a yellow rose on his desk. He was often seen in public wearing a yellow rose in the lapel of his suits. When he passed away in 2014 at the age of 87, Marquez was honored with a sea of yellow roses at his memorial service held in Mexico City.

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For further reading: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1982/
http://www.reuters.com/article/us-garciamarquez-idUSBREA3F1LY20140417
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/22/gabriel-garcia-marquez-memorial-held


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