Monday, October 19, 2020

The Confessions of a Collector by William Carew Hazlitt

Arcane anecdotes for book and coin experts 
As someone with an interest in book history and rare book libraries, I sometimes enjoy reading books about book collectors and their collections. This led me to William Carew Hazlitt’s book The Confessions of a Collector, published in 1897. Hazlitt (1834 -1913) came from a long line of men of letters. His grandfather William Hazlitt (1778-1830) was a famous essayist and literary critic. William Carew Hazlitt’s published writings are mostly on literary history and bibliography. He was also a collector of books, coins, china, postage stamps, paintings, and furniture. The Confessions of a Collector is a memoir about his collecting activities in these various areas.

Hazlitt was an expert on early English literature (pre-1700) and wrote a muli-volume bibliography of printed books from that era. To support his scholarly endeavors, he worked as a personal librarian to wealthy book collector Henry Huth. While purchasing books on Huth’s behalf, thousands of rare volumes passed through Hazlitt’s hands. Unfortunately, the reader learns very little about those books from Hazlitt’s memoir. The text is basically a catalog of London book dealers and anecdotes about Hazlitt’s dealings with each of them. Hazlitt assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of the reader. He expects one to have read all the books he’s written, read all the books he’s read, and met all the dealers he mentions. The intended audience for the book seems to have been his closest colleagues in the London collecting community. Although he mentions famous early printers like William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, Hazlitt never discusses the exceptional qualities of the books they produced, other than their monetary value. In fact, he never expresses any sort of affection whatsoever for the books in which he’s dealing. The point of each anecdote is simply that Hazlitt bought such-and-such a book for five pounds and sold it later for fifteen. Of course, a century later, all the information on prices and the relative rarity of volumes will be obsolete to today’s bargain hunters, so Hazlitt’s tales of book collecting will likely only be of interest to museum curators or rare book librarians.

After nine chapters on books, there is one chapter on collecting china and one chapter on postage stamps and paintings. The remaining five chapters are on coin collecting. This latter section of the book is far more informative than Hazlitt’s thoughts on book collecting. On the topic of coins, Hazlitt does a better job of communicating his enthusiasm for numismatics (coin collecting) and his appreciation for the art form. I am not a coin collector, but Hazlitt certainly did pique my interest on the subject. He describes his decision-making process when examining and purchasing rare coins, which might actually prove valuable advice to a reader who is starting a collection of European coins. One wishes Hazlitt had approached the subject of books in the same helpful manner, instead of merely rattling off an assortment of random deal-making anecdotes.

Other than the division of topics into chapters as described above, there is little organization to the information that Hazlitt provides here. He simply meanders on each subject, often repeating the same points. If you were an avid collector of books and coins in the late 19th century, this memoir might have replicated the experience of a fireside chat in Hazlitt’s study (and perhaps not an entirely pleasant one, since he does come across as a bit of a blowhard). These days, however, only expert collectors, those privy to the most arcane knowledge in their areas of interst, are likely to find much use for The Confessions of a Collector.
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Friday, October 16, 2020

The Land of Mist by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Prof. Challenger betrayed for spiritualist propaganda
Outside of his Sherlock Holmes stories, the most famous recurring character in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is Professor Challenger, the bearded, blustering scientist who led the expedition to The Lost World. Conan Doyle featured Challenger in three novels and two short stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of The Lost World, none of them are regarded very highly. The Land of Mist, published in 1926, is the third novel in the Challenger series, which follows Challenger’s second adventure, 1913’s The Poison Belt. The two short stories were published later, but I believe they are prequels to The Land of Mist.

One of the things (among many) that makes this novel so disappointing is that Challenger is merely a guest star in this book and only present for small portions of the narrative. The story centers around Ned Malone, journalist and sidekick from The Lost World. Professor Challenger’s daughter Enid Challenger is also a reporter and plays a major role in the story. Malone and Enid are assigned by a newspaper to co-write a series of articles on the spiritualist movement. Though both begin as skeptics, they resolve to keep an open mind while investigating possible paranormal phenomena at a series of seances where mediums claim to receive communications from the dead. (Gee, I wonder if the two reporters will fall in love.) Lord John Roxton, another supporting character from The Lost World, also appears in a couple chapters.

Conan Doyle wrote many works on spiritualism and the paranormal, both fiction and nonfiction. He was a firm believer in the supernatural world and gave pubic lectures on the topic. Sometimes he even managed to craft an entertaining story around the subject, such as in The Parasite. The Land of Mist, however, reads more like one of his lectures than one of his entertaining stories. As Malone and Enid attend more seances and meet more mediums, they become more convinced of the veracity of spiritualist claims. Meanwhile, mediums are being persecuted in London for their beliefs. If they could only convert a confirmed materialist into seeing the truth and beauty of the spirit world, it would go a long way towards popularizing spiritualism for the good of the masses. Thus, Ned and Enid conspire with the spiritualists to convince Professor Challenger to attend a seance where he will see the light and become converted. By following this course, Conan Doyle betrays the integrity of his own character in order to push his spiritualist propaganda.

Conan Doyle was also a church-goin’ man, so he does not view spiritualism as a departure from the Bible. In fact, a few of the ghosts who appear in this story have actually met Christ, and the prophets mentioned in the Bible were nothing but mediums who received messages from the dead. The spiritualists’ belief system, as sketched by Conan Doyle in this novel, is an absurd house of cards built on convenient rationalizations. When a seance fails to achieve results, for example, it is because a skeptic in the room disturbs the energy. In addition to messages from beyond the grave, Conan Doyle asserts physical manifestations such as ectoplasmic apparitions, spirit photography, and poltergeists. Even those who believe in ghosts and TV mediums who speak to the deceased will find many of the Victorian Era spiritualist beliefs to be ridiculous.

Besides all the pseudo-science, this is just a poorly written story, boring for most of its length, that can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be an essay or a melodrama. Conan Doyle presents a dull catalog of dozens of paranormal occurrences he’s read about, which leaves room for only the thinnest of stories, every turn of which is predictable. Although Conan Doyle has every right to write about his supernatural beliefs, he should have left Professor Challenger out of it.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Tragicomedy of race and class in America
Any discussion of the most important works in African American literature is sure to include Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, first published in 1952. The novel depicts and comments upon the racial and social climate of its era, including the black nationalist movement, the American Communist party, and social conditions in the American South. This groundbreaking work of modern literature, however, goes beyond social realism to address more existential issues of black identity. While it often deals with heavy themes, Ellison eloquently mixes tragedy and humor to deliver an engaging and thought-provoking read.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator who grew up in a small town in the American South. He wins a school contest in speech-making, for which he earns a scholarship to a black college. Before he can collect his prize, however, he must first undergo a harrowing and brutal racist hazing ritual for the amusement of the town’s leading white men. As a college student, he is assigned to act as chauffeur and guide to one of the school’s wealthy white donors. When, at the donor’s request, he ushers the white man to some unseemly sites that display the harsher realities of black life in the town, he draws the ire of the college’s president, who expels him from the school. He then heads to New York, where he is recruited by a socialist group called the Brotherhood that ostensibly advocates reforms for the poor and working classes of all races. Due to his prowess as a public speaker, the narrator is assigned to be the Brotherhood’s spokesman in Harlem.

At least half of the novel is devoted to the protagonist’s career with the Brotherhood, which is easily the narrative’s biggest fault. Way too much time is spent on the internal politics and behind-the-scenes strategies of this organization. The reader sits through a series of protracted dialogues in which members of the group’s hierarchy accost each other in accusatory tones without ever really saying what they mean. In the end this yields some interesting conclusions, but Ellison sure takes a long and circuitous route in getting there. Just as in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a novel about labor organizers among oppressed white farm workers, focusing so much on the supposed reformers often leaves the reader feeling one step removed from the problems they’re trying to reform. In both cases, the author is critical of these purported saviors and exposes the self-interested exploitation behind their agendas. Ellison’s criticisms of the Communists and their treatment of black Americans may be valid, but the 21st century reader finds himself wishing more time had been spent focusing on the realities of black life in Harlem. The beginning and end of the novel—the narrator’s life in the South, his time at college, the frenzied climax, and the thoughtful epilogue—are superior to what’s in between.

Those who prefer a more traditionally naturalistic social realism will find that Ellison ventures a little too much into a verbose, Faulknerian stream-of-conscious style that obscures his arguments more than it elucidates them. Thankfully, only portions of the novel are written in this manner. Despite my few reservations, Invisible Man is still a great novel and an enlightening read. Though published almost seven decades ago, many of the issues Ellison raises have proven regrettably timeless, thus Invisible Man still retains its relevance. For those receptive to what it has to say, this book still has the power to change one’s views on race in America.

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2020

Congratulations to Louise Glück!
It was announced yesterday that American poet Louise Glück has won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” I’ll have to take their word for it, because I’ve never read any of Glück’s work (this blog tends to avoid poets), but it is always a pleasant surprise when an American takes the award.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog (even though now you can see this list any time you want simply by clicking on “Nobel Laureates” in the above menu bar). 
Unlike the previous year, I haven’t read a great deal of Nobel books since last October, so the only new authors added to the list this time around are England’s John Galsworthy (1932 winner) and Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk (2018 winner). Plus I added a few new works from Paul Heyse, Hermann Hesse, Romain Rolland, Pearl S. Buck, and John Steinbeck. Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom (born in India) 🇬🇧

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Henri Bergson (1927 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Sigrid Undset (1928 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴
  • Jenny (1911) - 2.5 stars

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

John Galsworthy (1932 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Ivan Bunin (1933 Nobel) France (born in Russia) 🇫🇷 🇷🇺

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China) 🇺🇸

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939 Nobel) Finland 🇫🇮

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany) 🇨🇭 🇩🇪

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

François Mauriac (1952 Nobel) 
France 🇫🇷

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Halldór Laxness
 (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Borris Pasternak (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺
     (1957) - 4 stars

John Steinbeck (1962 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Mikhail Sholokhov (1965 Nobel) Soviet Union 🇷🇺

José Saramago (1998 Nobel) Portugal 🇵🇹

Orhan Pamuk (2006 Nobel) Turkey 🇹🇷

  • Snow (2002) - 3.5 stars

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Olga Tokarczuk (2018 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Bonus: Albert Einstein (1921 Nobel in Physics) Germany/Switzerland 🇩🇪 🇨🇭


Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Avenger by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Somewhere between Conan Doyle and Hitchcock
In a career that spanned from the 1880s to the 1940s, English author E. Phillips Oppenheim produced over 100 novels and dozens of volumes of short stories. His novel The Avenger was originally published in England in 1907 under the title of Conspirators before being released in America the following year under its present title. The Avenger is the first of Oppenheim’s books that I have read, and if the quality of this novel is an accurate indication of his overall body of work, I look forward to exploring more of his prolific literary output.

The Avenger is presumably set during the early 20th century, an era when one would see both hansom cabs and electric broughams plying the streets of London. Herbert Wrayson returns to his apartment one evening to find an intruder rummaging through his desk. His shock and indignation are relieved a bit when he realizes said intruder is a beautiful woman. It turns out she has the wrong apartment. She had meant to break into the flat of Wrayson’s upstairs neighbor, Morris Barnes, a man with whom Wrayson is acquainted but does not count among his friends. After some inconclusive grilling, Wrayson is distracted by a phone call while the woman slips away. Later that night, Wrayson finds Morris Barnes’s dead body in a cab out in front of his building. When questioned by the police, Wrayson leaves out any mention of the woman he met that evening. Even he is not really sure why he does so. Perhaps as a gentleman, he simply feels honor-bound to protect a woman he suspects may be in some distress, or maybe he has fallen in love with her? Either way, Wrayson decides to find this mystery woman and get to the bottom of Barnes’s murder.

Oppenheim was an immensely popular novelist during his lifetime, and after reading this book it is easy to see why. The Avenger may be intended as popular entertainment for the masses, but it is very intelligently written. Oppenheim’s storytelling style (in 1907, anyway) reads like a cross between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the early thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. The narrative retains some Victorian propriety in its somewhat antiquated belief in a rigid class structure. Gentlemen are born a breed above the riff-raff and live by a gentlemanly code. Women of the upper classes are presumed eminently virtuous while those of the lower classes are prone to vice. Nevertheless, the story reads as surprisingly modern in its lack of prudishness concerning murder, infidelity, women of ill repute, and philandering cads. Like Hitchcock’s earlier films, it delivers danger and suspense while stopping shy of the more hard-boiled and violent film noirs. Though there is a murder mystery here, it is not a detective story in the vein of Sherlock Holmes; deciphering clues is not the main concern. It is a sophisticated adventure in which classy characters find themselves involved in international intrigue. The storytelling is always dignified but never boring. Oppenheim constructs a complex and engaging plot that always keeps the reader guessing.

I read a lot of classic literature and vintage pulp fiction, and it is rare that I encounter a “new” (to me) author that really impresses me. Oppenheim is one such fortuitous discovery. His work bears similarities to that of Edgar Wallace and John Buchan, but I found The Avenger superior to novels I’ve read by either of those writers. Though no longer a household name, Oppenheim is a 100-hit wonder that definitely deserves further consideration.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Heretics of Dune by Frank Herbert

Life after Leto II
Heretics of Dune,
the fifth book in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, was published in 1984, three years after the previous Dune novel. That fourth volume, God Emperor of Dune, was very much the culmination of the epic saga that began with 1965’s original Dune novel. God Emperor ended with a finality that brought closure to so many of the plot threads and grand schemes that Herbert conceived in the first four novels. As a result, Heretics of Dune often feels more like a spin-off than a sequel. When reading it, one gets the impression that Heretics is to the Dune universe what Rogue One is to the Star Wars universe: a stand-alone story with all new characters, surprisingly different in tone (somewhat of a spy thriller) and only tenuously related to the Duniverse timeline. By the time one finishes with the novel, however, it is clear that Heretics is only the beginning of a much grander narrative to come. It was, in fact, the beginning of a new trilogy envisioned by Herbert, but he died after having only completed two of the three novels.

Heretics of Dune takes place about 1500 years after God Emperor, or roughly 30,000 years in our future. The death of Leto II and the chaotic power vacuum that followed led to the Scattering, a tremendous diaspora of humanity to unknown stars and planets. What has taken place on those myriad far-flung worlds remains a mystery, but now descendants of those long-lost peoples, some with sinister intent, are beginning to return to the core planets of the former Imperium. While the first three novels of the Dune saga centered around a game of thrones between aristocratic houses, those dynasties disbanded during Leto II’s marathon reign. The Atreides and other noble families live on as DNA in the gene pool, but they no longer exist as political powers. The power struggle in Heretics of Dune takes place not between families but between bureaucracies: the religious/political sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, the genetic manipulators of the Bene Tleilax, the technological wizards of Ix, and the priests of Rakis (the planet formerly known as Arrakis). From the Scattering, a new and terrifying faction enters the mix: the Honored Matres, an order of warrior women armed with supreme skills in both physical combat and sexual conquest.

The plot of Heretics of Dune is basically a strategic chess game among these various players, and like a chess game, it is sometimes thrilling, often intellectually stimulating, but occasionally just plain boring. While the story may not live up to Dune books past, Herbert still enchants Dune fans with the Byzantine ingenuity of his Dune universe. The action takes place on three planets: Rakis, Gammu (formerly Geidi Prime) and the Bene Gesserit’s Chapterhouse planet. While the earlier Dune books mostly focused on emperors, aristocrats, and their retinues (the Fremen excepted), Heretics gives the reader a broader glimpse into the lives of the common residents of Gammu and Rakis and the rank and file of the Bene Gesserit and Tleilaxu.

Heretics of Dune is not as strong as the four books that preceded it. Nevertheless, don’t believe those Dune fans who complain that everything sucked after God Emperor. It’s still Frank Herbert’s work, and he still manages to deliver gripping suspense, philosophical food for thought, and beautiful richness of detail. As a whole, Herbert’s six canon Dune books stand as a literary masterpiece. His fictional universe is more intricately complex and intelligently conceptualized than those of Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or any other multi-volume sci-fi/fantasy narrative. While the foundation of the Duniverse was laid by earlier novels, Heretics of Dune does add a few more fascinating levels to Herbert’s monumental vision.
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Monday, September 28, 2020

Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe by Jane McIntosh

Vast range of time and space
For anyone interested in archaeology, the Handbook to Life series from Oxford University Press is a great set of books on ancient cultures and civilizations, including volumes on Greece, Rome, and Egypt, as well as the Aztecs and the Maya. Unlike those volumes focusing on one particular culture, Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe, published in 2006, is much broader in scope. Geographically, its range encompasses the entire continent, and chronologically, it covers a time span from the first appearance of homo species in Europe around 800,000 BC to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. It does not cover classical Greece and Rome, because they cannot be said to be prehistoric, but rather the cultures that existed outside those empires, such as those the Romans would have considered “barbarians.”

Like all the books in the series, this Handbook to Life begins with a substantial chronological overview, followed by a series of thematically organized chapters focusing on different aspects of life, such as agriculture, dwellings and settlements, trade, religion, burial practices, warfare, language, and apparel. Each thematic chapter proceeds from the general to the specific, breaking down its topic into categories that focus on, for example, the use of specific natural resources, different types of dwellings, or classes of weapons. Often included are brief descriptions of archaeological digs where examples of the artifacts or practices discussed have been uncovered.

Unlike the Romans or the Aztecs, it is difficult to make blanket statements about how daily life was lived in prehistoric Europe. Because of the vast area and time span considered, there is very little that unifies the various cultures and civilizations discussed. One can make generalities about Bronze Age and Iron Age technologies, for example, but those technologies developed at different rates in different regions of the continent. As a result, the text often reads like an inconclusive hodgepodge of data, expressed in the form of, “Some people did this; some people did that.” If you want to learn about a specific people, such as the LBK culture, the Etruscans, or the Scythians, you’d have to consult the index and hopscotch around for bits and pieces of data. For that reason, this book is probably more useful as a reference than as a cover-to-cover read. The Celts, who were widespread throughout western Europe, are the one group that are examined extensively throughout the book and pretty much dominate every chapter.

What this book does very well is give the reader an idea of what archaeologists look for at a prehistoric dig site, how they interpret their findings, and the methods and techniques they use to analyze and date artifacts. One of this book’s weaknesses is its illustrations, which seem to be treated as an afterthought. Most are drawings of artifacts pulled from 19th century textbooks. There are very few photographs. The maps, as typical of this series, are very well done. Overall, I didn’t enjoy this volume as much as others I’ve read in the series, but there is no denying it is packed full of valuable information. Author Jane McIntosh has done an admirable job compiling a comprehensive volume on this vast range of time and space. Oxford would have done better, however, to break this up into a few focused volumes on different ages or regions.
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