Monday, July 13, 2020

The Overman by Upton Sinclair



Philosopher Crusoe
The Overman, a story by Upton Sinclair, was originally published in the December 1906 issue of The Windsor Magazine. Though really just a short story, it was published as a hardcover volume of 90 pages in 1907, so it is usually listed among Sinclair’s novels. In 1924, socialist publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius also published an edition of The Overman as part of his Little Blue Books series, making it Little Blue Book No. 594.

Given Sinclair’s lifelong preoccupation with labor and the class struggle, I expected the title to refer to some capitalist slave driver, such as a tyrannical factory foreman. What I got, however, was far different. The Overman is not a work of social justice typical of Sinclair’s body of work. Instead, it is a deeply philosophical tale, and one more romantic than realistic. The title refers to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the übermensch, which has been translated into English as “beyond-man,” “superman,” or “overman.” Nietzsche proposed the overman as the next step in evolution to which humanity should aspire. The übermensch would be an “artist-tyrant” who would create new life-affirming, non-theistical values for humanity to supersede the other-wordly values of traditional religions. Nietzsche’s concept has been interpreted in myriad ways and co-opted by a variety movements ranging from fascists to anarchists. In The Overman, Sinclair’s interpretation of the übermensch is rather fantastical, rhapsodic, and transcendental.

The story is narrated by Edward, a scientist. His younger brother Daniel, a gifted musician, was shipwrecked during an ocean voyage and presumed lost at sea. Years later, however, Edward meets a survivor of the voyage, who tells him that a few castaways managed to reach an uninhabited island, where they lived for several months. When the other survivors made an escape attempt in a small craft, Daniel chose to remain on the island. Hearing this, Edward launches a search to find his long-lost brother and ends up shipwrecked himself, on the very same island as his brother Daniel! This brief and not at all realistic setup serves the purpose of getting the two brothers alone on an island, where there two natures can be compared and contrasted.

In his twenty years alone on the island, Daniel has come to embrace his solitude. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he hasn’t even bothered to better his life on the island, but instead lives a rather ascetic existence inspired by Diogenes the Cynic. Daniel doesn’t even play his violin anymore, as he is now able to compose entire symphonies in his mind. Emphasizing an internal life of the mind over the needs of the body, he has elevated his existence to a higher intellectual and creative plane, as if he has acquired new senses with which to commune with the universe. Sinclair’s pet fascination with paranormal psychology—telepathy, clairvoyance, and such—also plays into Daniel’s heightened mental and spiritual state, to a degree which Nietzsche himself likely would have frowned upon, as the story crosses the line from philosophy into fantasy.

The Overman is essentially a dialogue between two sides of Upton Sinclair. The Daniel side aspires to be the transcendent artist who reaches lofty literary heights by expressing the sublime. The Edward side is the scientific realist who writes about the world as it is and who must practice his literary craft as an income-producing profession. Coming from Sinclair, The Overman is a very unusual and unexpected piece of fiction, but one that intimately reveals much about the author’s values, dreams, and inner struggles at this period in his literary development.
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Friday, July 10, 2020

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books: Christopher Columbus, His Son, and the Quest to Build the World’s Greatest Library by Edward Wilson-Lee



Bites off a little more than it can chew
Many histories have been written about Christopher Columbus and his voyages to America. One of the first books to tell his story was written by his own son, Hernando Colón (a.k.a. Ferdinand Columbus), who accompanied his father on his fourth voyage to the New World. Hernando, however, was more than just his father’s son. He led an astonishing life of his own, which author Edward Wilson-Lee chronicles in The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, published in 2018.

Hernando was the second, and illegitimate, son of Christopher Columbus. As a youth, while his father was off exploring the New World for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Hernando was a page in the court of their son, Prince Juan. He spent much of his adult life traveling around Europe with the court of King Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Hernando was an accomplished scholar, author, diplomat, geographer, and cartographer, but his real love was collecting books and printed pamphlets. He established a library in Seville that amounted to more than 15,000 volumes. A true Renaissance man, Hernando attempted to amass a universal collection that would comprehensively encompass all fields of knowledge and culture in all languages.

There’s no question that Hernando Colón led a fascinating life, but in this book his story is somewhat smothered under too much historical context. Wilson-Lee thinks the reader needs to know the life story of every pope and prince in Renaissance Europe, which results in countless tangents that distract from the primary narrative of Hernando, his family, and his library. Although I enjoy reading exploration narratives and explorer biographies, my primary interest in this book was Hernando’s library, which is really what makes his story so unique. After covering Columbus’s voyages, Wilson-Lee doesn’t really even begin to get into Hernando’s bibliophilia until about page 150. Even then, he only gradually eases into Hernando’s collecting habits, while the history of the library competes with all the other threads of political, religious, and legal history. The last few chapters, however, focus almost exclusively on Hernando’s library and art collection.

Hernando was not only an obsessive collector, he was also an obsessive cataloger. The numerous lists and annotated bibliographies he compiled were the precursors of the card catalogs, bibliographic metadata, and search engines employed by modern librarians. Wilson-Lee describes at length the various catalogs that Hernando created for his collections, but it would have been far more effective if he had excerpted a page or two from each list so the reader could get a better idea of each cataloging system and its entries. Wilson-Lee makes much of the fact that the Renaissance was an era in which humanist scholars strove to bring order to our understanding of nature and the universe. Thus, every time Hernando learns something or writes something down he is said to be “ordering the world.” Wilson-Lee hammers this point home so relentlessly that the text often reads more like a dissertation than a trade book for the general public.

The story of Hernando’s battle to save his father’s reputation and legacy deserves a book of its own. So does his quest to build the world’s greatest library. When the two are crammed together into one volume, while also trying to summarize the entire Renaissance history of Western Europe, everything gets short-changed in the process. Nevertheless, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books still delivers a great deal of fascinating information on early print culture and the intellectual history of Renaissance Europe. Wilson-Lee also helpfully provides ample bibliographic references for the reader to launch further research into Hernando and his library. Anyone interested in Columbus or the history of books will find this a very stimulating and informative read.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Direct Descent by Frank Herbert



Library planet under bureaucratic siege
Direct Descent is a work of science fiction by Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. Though considered a novel, the book is really a collection of two short stories, labeled Part I and Part II. Part I is based on a short story by Herbert entitled “Pack Rat Planet,” which was published in the December 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Part II was presumably created specifically for the 1980 publication of Direct Descent. Altogether the book adds up to maybe 100 pages of text. Paperback editions of Direct Descent were padded with illustrations, but the ebook edition I read was not illustrated.

The two stories, Part I and Part II, are only loosely related and do not constitute a continuous narrative. In other words, Part II is not a sequel to Part I. The stories have different characters, but both take place on the same world and build upon similar plot premises. The world in question is Earth, but an Earth much changed from that which we know. Part I takes place in the 81st century, while Part II is set at least two thousand years beyond that. Much like in the Duniverse, mankind has spread outwards from Earth to colonize the galaxy. In Direct Descent, however, the Earth is now home to the Galactic Archives, a sort of gargantuan Library of Congress for the entire galaxy. The holdings of this library are so extensive that much of the planet has been hollowed out to make room for them, right down to the Earth’s very core.

The library director informs us that “The first rule of the Galactic Library Code is to obey all direct orders of the government in power.” How can the library management be expected to follow that directive, however, when the government is antagonistic towards the library and aims to shut it down? Such is the premise of both stories. Following a regime change, the new governing power sends auditors to the Library looking to disband it due to financial or ideological reasons. Besides hoarding archival materials from all of mankind’s planets, another mission of the Galactic Library is to disseminate information, which it does by sending out thousands of broadcasts of randomly selected content from its holdings. If one were to compare Direct Descent to present-day politics, the story is less analogous to the U.S. government’s treatment of the Library of Congress than it is to the government’s treatment of the Public Broadcasting Service. When conservative administrations take power, they look to cut the funding of PBS, which they see as a liberal enterprise. Direct Descent presents two gross exaggerations of this sort of ideological squabble.

I’m very interested in libraries and their history, so I enjoyed the library planet that Herbert envisioned for this novel. I can’t help thinking, however, that a more whimsical science fiction writer—Clifford D. Simak, perhaps—could have handled the idea better. The wonders of knowledge contained in this planet-sized institution are hardly explored at all. Herbert is more interested in government bureaucracy than he is in the library itself. Both stories in Direct Descent rely on legal technicalities for their resolutions. These technicalities are so technical, in fact, that they confuse the reader and may even defy logic. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my visit to the Galactic Archives for the most part. As a work of literature, this isn’t in the same league with the Dune saga or Herbert’s other major works. It’s just a light, fun read that doesn’t require much heavy mental lifting or a major investment of time.
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Monday, July 6, 2020

Broken to the Plow by Charles Caldwell Dobie



From social realism to farfetched noir
Born in San Francisco, author Charles Caldwell Dobie (1881-1943) was a prominent figure in that city’s burgeoning literary scene of the early twentieth century. He was a prolific author of novels and short stories, received critical acclaim and awards for his work, and headed the San Francisco chapter of the PEN association of writers. His novel Broken to the Plow was published in 1921. Like all of Dobie’s work, the story takes place in the city he called home.

Fred Starratt is an insurance agent with Ford, Wetherbee, & Co. As a low man on the company totem pole, his salary is modest, and he often has trouble making ends meet as he and his wife strive to uphold a respectable standard of living. One evening, Mr. and Mrs. Starratt have their friends the Hilmers over for dinner. Mr. Hilmer, a self-made man and successful shipbuilding entrepreneur, accuses Starratt of being “middle class.” Starratt grew up in a world where his parents’ generation saw humanity as being divided into two social strata: the “right kind of people” and the undesirables or riff raff. The idea that he might have somehow slipped from that top category of social status into a less respectable strata of society comes as a disturbing revelation to Starratt. When the arrogant Hilmer asserts that the middle class are defined by their complacency and lack of ambition, Starratt can’t help but notice that his wife looks to Hilmer with admiration. Shocked into activity by this attack on his character, the very next day Starratt demands a raise from his boss. When his boss refuses, Starratt quits his job and decides to go into business for himself.

Despite its title, there is nothing agrarian about this novel. The phrase is just an expression used a few times in the story, as in, “A man who’s been through hell is like a field broken to the plow. He’s ready for seed.” Broken to the Plow starts out as a novel of urban realism, reminiscent of the works of the great San Francisco naturalist author Frank Norris. Dobie’s novel gradually morphs into something far different, however, as it becomes more and more sensationalistic and drifts into the territory of a film noir, replete with corruption, betrayal, and an evil femme fatale. Even so, the novel still manages to serve as a largely realist document of the era in which it was produced. Things were different back then, particularly in regards to crime and punishment, with swifter prosecution and harsher punishment for crimes that wouldn’t be considered imprisonable offenses today. Prohibition, labor unrest, and anarchism, all signs of the times, also figure into the plot. The novel’s ensemble cast also includes a prostitute, and Dobie’s poignant portrayal of the character is surprisingly bold for the prudish American literature of his day.

Though Broken to the Plow gets increasingly more farfetched as it goes along, it is a pretty enjoyable and compelling ride for most of its length. Though Starratt is rather a milquetoast of a hero, he does make halting efforts towards becoming a latter-day Count of Monte Cristo as he plots vengeance against those who have wronged him. The conclusion of the story is a major disappointment, however. Starratt learns some valuable moral lessons, but the reader is left with the feeling that no one really got what he or she deserved. That’s a shame, because Dobie proves himself a fine writer up until the very end.
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Friday, July 3, 2020

Polyglot: How I Learn Languages by Kató Lomb



Anecdotes and tips from a master multilinguist
Hungarian author Kató Lomb (1909-2003) has been called “the world’s most multilingual woman” and “possibly the most accomplished polyglot in the world.” After earning a PhD in chemistry, Lomb taught herself 16 languages well enough to work as a professional translator and interpreter in all of them, including Russian, Chinese, and Japanese. Lomb was also one of the world’s first simultaneous translators (like the ones who talk in the United Nations headphones). After achieving renown as a polyglot (master of many languages), Lomb wrote four books about languages and language learning. Her first book, Polyglot: How I Learn Languages, was published in Hungarian in 1970. An English translation can be downloaded for free from the website of TESL-EJ: The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language.

The intended audience for Polyglot includes those who teach themselves foreign languages, those who teach languages to others, and those thinking of becoming professional interpreters. I fit into the self-taught category, but nowhere near the level of Lomb’s achievements. This book can be read by language learners of any skill level, even beginners, but one must have an avid curiosity for languages to find it interesting and useful. This book is for people who want to do more than just learn travel phrases, but who actually wish to read texts, have meaningful conversations, and go beyond mere memorization to learn the actual mechanics of a foreign language.


Despite the subtitle, only a few of the chapters really function as a how-to manual for language learning. This book is really a combination of Lomb’s personal anecdotes, learning tips, and educated reflections on languages. Even so, there is still plenty of concrete practical advice for those wishing to learn foreign languages. In addition to her own expertise as a polyglot, Lomb draws upon the work of educators who have researched the most efficient and successful methods of language instruction. First and foremost, Lomb dispels the myth that language learning is easier for children and that adults are too psychologically immutable to learn foreign languages effectively. Not only is she herself living proof that this is incorrect, having acquired almost all of her languages as an adult, Lomb also cites research opposing this assumption. In discussing her personal methods of language learning, Lomb enumerates her “Ten Commandments of Language Learning,” as well as a list of ten “dont’s” of language study. In a brief nutshell, her methods promote the deciphering of books (fiction, for example) over textbook learning, thus emphasizing the acquiring of words and phrases in context rather than memorizing vocabulary lists. Obviously there’s more to it than that, but too much to summarize here. Lomb also offers advice to those thinking of pursuing a career as a translator or interpreter.


Not surprisingly, Lomb credits enthusiasm and time invested as the most important factors for success. She obviously made language learning the most important activity in her life, and one would have to do the same to achieve her level of success. Those wishing to learn one or two languages rather than 16, however, need not be intimidated by Lomb’s methods. There is no panacea for acquiring fluency in an unfamiliar tongue, but Lomb’s insights and practical knowledge will surely prove helpful to readers with more than a passing interest in foreign languages. The advice she offers here is more rational and realistic than so many of the “learn in 30 days” methods on the market. In addition to her linguistic erudition, Lomb writes with a charming personality and sense of humor that makes the book an enjoyable read. I look forward to reading more of her works.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Kallocain by Karin Boye



Dystopian swan song
Though best known as a poet in her native country of Sweden, author Karin Boye also wrote five novels, the last of which, Kallocain, was published in 1940. In 1966, Gustaf Lannestock translated the novel into English as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s Nordic Translation Series. Kallocain and ten other Scandinavian novels in the Nordic Translation Series can be read for free online at the University of Wisconsin Libraries’ Digital Collections website.

Kallocain is the memoir of Leo Kall, a scientist living in a dystopian future. The world he describes is a highly militarized society in which every resource and every action is directed towards the might of the Worldstate, a draconian bureaucracy that strives for military supremacy over the rival states threatening its borders. The architectural structures of this civilization lie largely underground in the form of bunkers, tunnels, and subways, though one can venture surfaceward to a rooftop terrace if granted a permit. As in ancient Sparta, children are taken from their parents at a young age and groomed for military service. The citizens, who call each other “fellow-soldiers,” live under constant surveillance, though they don’t resent it much since their every thought and action is devoted to the almighty state.

Besides his obligatory military duties, Kall works as a chemist in the Worldstate’s Chemistry City No. 4. With little material benefit to gain from his labors in such an austere society, Kall’s only aspiration is to gain respect by ascending to higher and higher rungs of the corporate-military ladder. He has developed a new type of truth serum that forces suspected criminals and traitors to reveal their innermost thoughts. Hoping to enshrine his name in history, he dubs his invention Kallocain. As a devoted servant of the state, Kall hopes that his chemical will be used to root out treasonous individualistic thoughts that poison the rigid communalism of the Worldstate. While questioning volunteer subjects during the testing phase, however, he exposes some contrary thoughts and opinions that cause him to question his values, his career, and his marriage.

Despite some similarities to Big Brother, Boye wrote Kallocain almost a decade before George Orwell published his novel 1984. The dystopia that Boye has conceived in Kallocain bears a closer resemblance to that of Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, published in 1924. Unlike We, however, Kallocain is more realistic, not at all satirical, and more authentic in its portrayal of human psychology and emotion. Published during the rise of the Nazis and Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union, Kallocain can rightly be considered a warning cry against totalitarian dictatorships and the military-industrial complex. Boye, however, emphasizes the personal over the political. This is not a science fiction adventure story of resistance and revolution, but rather a metaphorical investigation into issues of human nature: the need for love, the fear of intimacy, the allure of conformity, the poison of jealousy, the paranoia of betrayal, and the reluctance to acknowledge or reveal one’s true self. Though set far in the future, Boye’s empathetic insights apply to real lives in today’s world.

While writing the novel, Boye may have been dealing with some of these issues herself. She committed suicide less than a year after finishing Kallocain. Her feelings of melancholy and dread are palpable throughout the book, which remains as a tragic testimony to both her personal struggles and her immense literary talent.
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Monday, June 29, 2020

“The Tools of My Trade”: The Annotated Books in Jack London’s Library by David Mike Hamilton



A mind map of London’s marginalia
Jack London was not only a prolific author but also a voracious reader. As indicated by the title of David Mike Hamilton’s 1986 book “The Tools of My Trade,” London saw books as the raw materials and instruments by which he plied his literary craft. In this in-depth study of London’s personal library, Hamilton charts the lengths to which other writers’ books influenced London’s intellectual development and served as source material for his own writings.

The book opens with an excellent 47 page essay in which Hamilton traces London’s life as a reader. Based on books that London discussed in his letters, mentioned in his published writings, or noted in unpublished manuscripts, Hamilton is able to piece together in great detail which books London read at various points in his career and how those books influenced his thought and writings. Other London studies often touch upon major names like Darwin, Spencer, Nietzsche, and Jung, but Hamilton delves far deeper into London’s pool of influences.

At the time of London’s death, his library consisted of about 15,000 volumes. Of that impressive total, Hamilton has compiled a bibliography of almost 600 books, pamphlets, and periodicals that contain handwritten notes by London, inscriptions from authors and friends, and/or enclosures such as letters, articles, or news clippings. Depending on the degree to which London marked up his copy, Hamilton either summarizes London’s notations or quotes them verbatim. Because London died in 1916, all the books mentioned are in the public domain, and one can find digitzed editions of over 90 percent of these works at the HathiTrust website.

As one might expect, frequent topics in London’s library include socialism, Hawaii, sailing and navigation, Alaska and the Yukon, poetry, and evolution. The high quantity of titles in psychoanalysis and sexuality is more surprising. The contents of London’s library do not entirely reflect well on him, since the list does include books on white supremacy. Beyond his pet interests, browsing London’s shelves allows the reader to experience the breadth and depth of knowledge enjoyed by an early-twentieth-century American intellectual. It is always fascinating to browse through the legacy libraries of historic personages. Rarely, however, does a bibliographer make the kind of concrete connections that Hamilton establishes between the books an author has read and those he has written. Through exhaustive research of London’s library, correspondence, and literary oeuvre, Hamilton is able to draw these linkages, providing London aficionados with an exceptionally clear vision of the author’s intellectual development and working methods.

The only problem with “The Tools of My Trade” is that it contains an inordinate number of typographical errors—an unforgiveable fault in the detail-oriented discipline of bibliography. While the author is very good about noting London’s spelling errors with [sic], the proofreading of Hamilton’s own text was not very thorough. What’s worse is that many of the errors occur in the titles of books and the names of authors. When compared to the actual title pages of the volumes he’s citing, Hamilton has authors listed as Grieg instead of Greig, Kish instead of Kisch, Mathe instead of Mather, Nedig instead of Neidig, Pennoll instead of Pennell, and those are just the few that I bothered to jot down. Errors occasionally occur in titles as well, such as “Human” instead of “Humane,” and also in Hamilton’s descriptive copy. One work described as a “small pamphlet” is listed as having 614 pages. Such inaccuracies make it difficult for researchers to track down and utilize the works that Hamilton has so thoroughly researched and compiled.

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