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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Friday, June 26, 2020

The Wonder by J. D. Beresford



Half-baked tragedy of a child savant
English author J. D. Beresford’s novel The Hampdenshire Wonder was first published in 1911. For the American edition, the title was reduced to simply The Wonder. The story concerns a child of extraordinary intelligence. It is very loosely inspired by the life of Christian Heinrich Heinecken, an 18th-century German child prodigy, whom Beresford briefly mentions in the story.

The Wonder is ostensibly a science fiction novel, but it is very light on science. It delves a little into psychology, child development, and evolution, but the hypotheses it conjures are very sketchy at best. In an attempt to establish a hereditary basis for the child’s abnormal genius, the story begins with a detailed history of his parents. The Wonder’s father, Ginger Stott, is a famous cricket player. Beresford is obviously a fan of the sport because he chronicles Ginger’s cricket career in exhaustive detail, using terminology that will prove unintelligible to American readers with little knowledge of the sport. What’s worse, however, is that Beresford actually proposes a tenuous cause-and-effect relationship between the father’s cricket prowess and his son’s supreme intelligence. It is also suggested that the child’s parents were able to alter his development in the womb by merely willing certain characteristics upon him.


The Wonder himself, Victor Stott, is an interesting and tragic character. His premature intelligence has robbed him of any personality, and his physical appearance, with an abnormally large head and disturbingly penetrating gaze, gives people the creeps. He rarely speaks, because he simply doesn’t see the point of conversing with those whose minds are so far beneath his own. Nevertheless, a few adults strive to reach the boy and help him develop his intelligence. One of these is the narrator, a journalist who decides to write a book about the Wonder, that being the very book you are reading. The narrator talks way to much about himself, however, and Victor Stott is absent from much of the narrative as opposing camps of grown-ups argue about whether the boy is a savant or an abomination.


Unless you’re really an avid cricket fan, the first half of the book is a waste of time. The story of Victor Stott doesn’t really get started until half-time. From there the novel becomes considerably more interesting, and the reader really feels for the boy whose very giftedness renders him an outcast in society. The story is still very slow-moving, however, and the novel just doesn’t deliver enough time spent with the Wonder himself. Before you even really get to know the character, the book comes to an abrupt and rather pointless ending. Then Beresford feebly tires to draw profound philosophical conclusions from a story that is really too silly and half-baked to merit such pretensions of depth.


Though the premise upon which The Wonder is based is quite fascinating, Beresford barely scratches the surface of its narrative possibilities. The result is a novel about as dull and lifeless as Victor Stott’s conversational skills. The Wonder himself is a character that one will not soon forget, but he deserves a better book than this.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

A Glance at Private Libraries by Luther Farnham



The state of New England’s book collections in 1855
A Glance at Private Libraries is an 80-page pamphlet published in 1855 by Luther Farnham, a church pastor, journalist, and theological librarian. The text was originally an address that Farnham gave to the New England Historic-Genealogical Society. He begins his essay by proclaiming that The United States has proven itself equal to Europe in industry, education, and natural beauty. He laments, however, America’s inability to compete with the Old World in one specific area: libraries. Farnham suggests that building up America’s libraries is a necessary step towards elevating the nation’s standards of learning and culture. The public libraries of the time, at least in Boston, could not boast sizable collections, but Farnham finds hope in the libraries of private collectors. In A Glance at Private Libraries, he briefly describes the holdings of many private book collectors in Boston and greater New England.

The book collectors that Farnham profiles include William H. Prescott, author of The History of the Conquest of Mexico; Charles F. Adams, the son of John Quincy Adams; Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist author; and a number of Massachusetts congressmen. The purpose of Farnham’s address seems to be to introduce the gentlemen of the Historic Society to the private libraries of the region, thus facilitating introductions between collectors, readers, and researchers with similar interests. One gets the feeling that, just as in ancient Rome, the only people who really got to enjoy or utilize these libraries are rich white men and perhaps their wives. Eventually, however, most of the materials in these collections likely ended up in the research libraries of America’s colleges and universities, thus fulfilling Farnham’s goal of building robust libraries accessible to the public.


Farnham gives a run-down of the categorical strengths in each library: One collector is big on American antiquity, another collects volumes on medical science, and so forth. At times Farnham also singles out a few of a collector’s most valuable holdings for special attention. If you are a lover of old books and libraries, you’ll find many details of interest, but, like a lot of books on this subject, the writing often reads like a catalog of assorted highlights that can only partially convey the wealth of knowledge contained in these collections. Farnham is acquainted with some of the collectors he profiles and has obviously spent a fair amount of time in their libraries. He also corresponded with other library owners he never met, who responded with written descriptions of their collections. As a result, the libraries that get the most coverage don’t necessarily have the best collections. They’re just the ones with which Farnham has a greater degree of familiarity. Hence, most of the book focuses on Boston libraries, with only brief accounts given of outliers in greater Massachusetts or Connecticut. New Haven’s George Brinley, for example, one of history’s greatest collectors of Americana, only receives a single sentence of mention.


Though limited in scope to New England, Farnham’s pamphlet serves as a sort of state-of-the-union assessment of America’s libraries in the mid-19th century. By importing historic European books and preserving early American texts, private collectors like those Farnham profiles laid the groundwork for America’s great research libraries, thus enriching education, scholarship, and research in the United States. A Glance at Private Libraries may not be the most gripping of reads, but it stands as a valuable historical document of these collectors’ achievements

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin



Dadaist dystopia
What do Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Ayn Rand’s Anthem all have in common? They all to some extent built upon ideas previously envisioned in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. Although the history of utopian and dystopian fiction in Western literature stretches all the way back to ancient Greece, Zamyatin’s We may very well be the first work of dystopian fiction to critique the modern technological age. Zamyatin, a Russian, had to smuggle the novel out of his native land to get it published. The first edition was printed in New York in 1924. Publication of We was not allowed in the Soviet Union until 1988.

In We, Zamyatin depicts a society in which almost every of iota of individuality has been stripped from the populace. Mankind’s every action is regulated by the state in the name of cooperative efficiency, and for the most part the citizens seem to enjoy their lack of freedom. Following a catastrophic war, the remaining human race is confined to a walled city governed by the United State (not the United States, but rather an exaggerated caricature of Communist Russia). The dictator of this regime is The Well-Doer (names may vary in different translations), who is a metal machine man of some kind, never very specifically described. The lives of the numbers (citizens) are regulated under a strict time table, inspired by the industrial efficiency experiments of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915). Their sex lives are also regimented by a system of government-issued tryst vouchers. The novel is narrated by D-503, a mathematician and engineer who is leading the construction of a spaceship called the Integral. He is one of the most faithful and content devotees of the United State until he meets an unusual woman, I-330, who displays a shocking disregard for conformity. Though appalled by her independence, D-503 is irresistibly drawn to her, which causes him much emotional turmoil and shakes his faith in the state.

Zamyatin is not as good a writer as Huxley, Orwell, or Rand, but he certainly deserves an A for originality. Not only is his depiction of the future quite groundbreaking, the language in which he expresses it is equally avant garde. The prose of the novel is just as unhinged as its protagonist. D-503’s narration is a modernist stream of consciousness mingled with dream imagery and hints of mental illness. One of the more annoying aspects of Zamyatin’s writing is his repetitive use of nonsensical metaphors. D-503 denotes one character as being shaped like a letter S. Another has a head like a valise, a woman has jowls that look like gills, and a doctor reminds him of a pair of scissors. These silly descriptions are repeated tediously and are more disorienting and boring than humorous. A better example of Zamyatin’s innovation is his use of mathematical terminology to describe human behavior and emotions in a manner totally appropriate to the narrator. The mechanistic imagery and blind devotion to the machine, combined with Zamyatin’s satirical sense of humor, amounts to a literary exemplar of the Dadaist art movement.

Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of We is its love story. Though I-330 is an audacious example of an independent woman, she is depicted as a cold femme fatale, as if feminine independence were a fearfully dangerous development of the modern age. Her doormat treatment of the timid D-503 renders her unsympathetic, and one suspects she is just using him to forward her own agenda. That agenda, however, does lead the story in some exciting directions. Despite its faults, We is a truly groundbreaking work of science fiction, and one that is admirably bolder and more thought-provoking than many of its later imitators.
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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order, edited by James Gilreath and Douglas L. Wilson



Browsing the polymath’s shelves
Thomas Jefferson, an avid lover of books, amassed one of the largest libraries in the early American republic, a collection of 6,700 volumes. Jefferson sold his library to the U.S. government in 1815, and the Library of Congress was born. At that time, he asked his private secretary Nicholas P. Trist to prepare a catalog of his library that lists the books in the exact order in which Jefferson himself had arranged them. This handwritten manuscript was also deposited in the Library of Congress, but no one discovered it until the 1980s. In 1989, the Library of Congress published the Trist manuscript in the book Thomas Jefferson’s Library: A Catalog with the Entries in His Own Order. The Library of Congress has an html version of this book on its website, and a scanned copy can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust.

As one would expect from Jefferson’s polymathic pursuits as statesman, lawyer, diplomat, architect, scientist, philosopher, and farmer, his library covers a wide breadth of knowledge. Using a method proposed by Francis Bacon in his book The Advancement of Learning, Jefferson divided his books into three main kingdoms: Memory (history, including natural history), Reason (philosophy, law, and mathematics), and Imagination (fine arts and literature). These main headings are further divided into multiple categories and subcategories. Not surprisingly, the sections on law and government are the most extensive, but Jefferson’s collections of history, geography, and natural history are also well developed. Though a slaveholder, Jefferson owned at least a dozen books on slavery, the titles of which indicate an unmanifested philosophical leaning towards abolition. Besides the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome, Jefferson’s catalog contains the familiar names of many of his intellectual contemporaries and philosophical predecessors: Franklin, Adams, Humboldt, Linnaeus, Darwin (Erasmus, not Charles), Locke, Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire. It is fascinating to browse through the list and see what this Enlightenment genius had on his mind.

After purchasing the collection in 1915, the Library of Congress altered Jefferson’s catalog, retaining his original categories but listing the books within those categories in alphabetical order. This was obviously done to make the books easier to find, but Jefferson wasn’t happy about it. The editors stress that what makes this volume important is that it lists Jefferson’s books in the exact order he intended. Depending on which of Jefferson’s categories the books fall under, the volumes might be ordered chronologically, thematically, by nationality of origin, or from the general to the specific. By reading Jefferson’s original catalog, the editors insist, one gets an understanding of how Jefferson classified information, and therefore “a blueprint of his own mind.” For me, knowing what books Jefferson owned and read is far more important than knowing what order he put them in. His original shelving pattern is interesting but not essential.

Jefferson, being intimately familiar with his own library, only noted each book with a one-line description of its title, author, language, size, shelf location, and sometimes date. Such scant description will leave bibliophiles wanting more information. Fortunately, those curious for more information on each entry can consult the annotated bibliography Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson compiled by E. Millicent Sowerby. It was published by the Library of Congress in 1952 as five volumes, scanned copies of which can be read and downloaded for free from HathiTrust.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Cliff-Dwellers by Henry Blake Fuller



Social climbers in young Chicago
Chicago novelist, poet, and playwright Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929) may not be a household name among today’s readers, but he is still well-respected by scholars of American literary naturalism. Though Fuller was not the first to write a novel set in Chicago, he may have been the first successful author to actually have been born in Chicago, where he lived his entire life.

Fuller’s novel The Cliff-Dwellers, published in 1893, depicts the Windy City at a time when it was just starting to come into its own as a metropolis. Though Easterners still looked down on the city as a dirty Western backwater town of factories and slaughterhouses, Chicago was beginning to build an economic, cultural, and social environment to rival its cosmopolitan counterparts on the Atlantic Coast. One of the distinctive aspects of Chicago at the time was its rapid explosion of skyscrapers. The Cliff-Dwellers centers on one such eighteen-story high-rise dubbed The Clifton, a swanky downtown office building housing various enterprises in banking, real estate, insurance, and manufacturing. George Ogden, a Bostonian, arrives in Chicago armed with letters of introduction that secure him a banking job within the Clifton. After reaching out to a small social circle of fellow emigrants from Massachusetts, Ogden soon becomes acquainted with some of the most prominent families in Chicago high society.

Besides Ogden, the ensemble cast includes several other men who work in the Clifton building, as well as their families. The novel not only follows their work lives but also their home lives in various Chicago neighborhoods. Other novels have focused on the residents of a particular building, but usually the edifice in question is a residential one—Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot and Emile Zola’s Pot-Bouille come to mind. The Cliff-Dwellers may be the earliest book to revolve around an office building, using the skyscraper as a microcosm of modern urban life. As a naturalist, Fuller writes about how the conditions and conventions of modern urban society affect, control, and sometimes even enslave his characters. As in Zola’s Pot-Bouille, everyone in The Cliff-Dwellers is struggling to reach a higher rung in the ladder of social status and are willing to use questionable means to do so, whether unethical business practices, outright crime, spending beyond one’s means, or engaging in marriages of convenience. Unlike most naturalist writers, however, Fuller totally ignores the laboring and servant classes, resulting in a myopic novel about social conditions that really only applies to the relatively well-off.

The Cliff-Dwellers proved a surprisingly difficult novel to read. Though the book is written in roughly high school-level vocabulary, Fuller employs many century-old idioms and slang into his prose. What’s worse, Fuller has a way of writing dialogue that makes it very difficult to tell who is speaking and whom is being spoken about. He uses way too many pronouns and not enough antecedents. Some passages required reading two or three times to figure out what was going on. Fuller’s ambiguous phrasing even led me to believe that one character was dead, only to discover her speaking a few pages later.

Some regard The Cliff-Dwellers as one of the greatest of Chicago novels, but it doesn’t measure up to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Frank Norris’s The Pit. Nevertheless, this is still a noteworthy work of regional realism. Besides being one of Chicago’s pioneering men of letters, Fuller’s other claim to fame is that he wrote the first American novel about homosexuality, Bertram Cope’s Year, published in 1919.
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Monday, June 15, 2020

A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe by Constantine S. Rafinesque



A never-ending itinerary of scientific curiosity
Constantine Rafinesque
French/German-American scholar Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840) is an exceptional example of an autodidact, or self-educated man. Having never attended college, he supported himself through various business endeavors, but his real passion was science. Before the era of rigid specialization, Rafinesque was able to boast, “I have been a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist,” and he also claims to have studied over fifty languages. As an autodidact, he struggled for respect from the academic scientific community. Many thought he was a quack, and that may have been an accurate assessment of his work in some fields, but there’s no denying Rafinesque did make his fair share of legitimate discoveries. You can’t open a field guide of American plants or animals without coming across species that he discovered or described.

In 1836, Rafinesque published his memoir A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe. More a summary sketch than a full-blown autobiography, this book consists of only 150 small pages of relatively large type. The title is quite accurate in that the text is primarily a lifelong itinerary of Rafinesque’s travels. He spent his entire life wandering through Europe and America, making empirical observations of nature and gathering biological, mineralogical, and paleontological specimens for research or sale. There is rarely a sentence in this volume that doesn’t revolve around at least one geographical place name. The text is a nonstop whirlwind tour of towns visited, rivers crossed, and mountains climbed. Along the way, Rafinesque reveals a few famous people he’s met (including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and John James Audubon), some scientific colleagues with whom he has botanized and “herborized,” several failed business enterprises, and a sampling of his scientific discoveries. Rafinesque frequently brags about his “N.G.”—the many new genera of animals and plants that he has logged over the course of his career.


While reading A Life of Travels, one becomes intimately acquainted with this eccentric polymath, and he isn’t always the most pleasant of traveling companions. First of all, Rafinesque is clearly full of himself and quite overconfident in his own genius. Secondly, he envisions himself as a scientific martyr with more wounds than St. Sebastian, relying upon a paranoid victim mentality to justify his own failure to achieve unbridled fame and success. He repeatedly and petulantly complains of inventions stolen, writings plagiarized, and research suppressed. “I have tryed to serve mankind; but have often met with ungrateful returns.” On several occasions he asserts he “could have begun a lawsuit,” but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Like any true self-proclaimed martyr, Rafinesque takes solace in knowing that “time renders justice to all at last.”


Rafinesque is truly a fascinating character. I enjoyed very much following his travels, and I envy him for the life he led. He impetuously pursued whatever struck his curiosity, regardless of cost or hardship, and his enthusiasm is infectious. There are a few passages, particularly towards the end, that tediously read like a Pennsylvania road atlas. For the most part, however, this book is quite entertaining for scientifically-inclined armchair explorers, and it really gives you a candid look inside the mind of this eccentric genius. For more extensive studies of Rafinesque’s life and works, two classic biographies/bibliographies are The Life and Writings of Rafinesque (1895) by Richard Ellsworth Call and Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography (1911) by T. J. Fitzpatrick.

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Friday, June 12, 2020

The Literati by Edgar Allan Poe



Nothing if not critical
Given the macabre tales he wrote, and the rumors (some of them unfounded) of his alcoholic lifestyle and erratic behavior, it is easy to imagine Edgar Allan Poe as a deranged recluse shut up in a garret with no friend but his pen. On the contrary, however, Poe was a hard-working author and an active member of the literary community. In addition to his poetry and fiction, Poe penned many essays, articles, and reviews for literary journals. In 1846, for a magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book, Poe wrote a series of articles entitled “The Literati of New York City,” in which he profiled various men and women of letters, critiqued their work, and even described their physical appearance and personalities. In 1850 these profiles, along with other articles of literary criticism by Poe, were collected in The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, Volume III, under the collective title of The Literati. This volume is also included in the Delphi Classics ebook collection Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, published in 2011.

Of the roughly 75 writers critiqued by Poe, only a few still stand as household literary names today: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Fenimore Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens. Habitual readers of classic lit will likely recognize several others, but most of Poe’s contemporaries have largely faded from memory. Probably about three-quarters of the authors Poe discusses are poets first and foremost, though Poe does cover some novelists and short story writers as well. His view of the New York world of letters is even broad enough to include journal editors, a physician who gives scientific lectures, and clergymen who write religious works. About a quarter of the authors are women, several of whom garner high praise from Poe. From his descriptions, Poe seems to have been acquainted with many of these figures, though he makes it hard to tell which may have been friends and which enemies.


The fact is, whether reviewing an ally or a foe, Poe could be a brutal critic. He frequently asserts that a critic is not obligated to point out the merits of a work of art or literature but is duty-bound to point out its faults. In other words, even if Poe likes your work, he’ll still harp on your shortcomings. Though he says Longfellow may be America’s greatest poet, Poe still considers him overrated and spends a large, tedious portion of the collection accusing Longfellow of plagiarism. Poe proclaims Richard Henry Horne’s epic poem Orion to be the greatest poem ever written, but only after having spent about 15 pages lambasting Horne’s grammar, rhyme, meter, and imagery. With fans like Poe, who needs enemies? The only writer who gets unequivocal praise is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was still relatively unknown at the time, and Poe thought he was greatly underrated. Though a born Bostonian, Poe has little regard for his fellow Bay Staters, the Transcendentalists, whom he regards as the “merest nobodies, fatiguing even themselves.”


As a fan of 19th century literature, I was hoping Poe’s critical essays might turn me on to some lesser-known fiction writers. Since Poe focuses so much on poetry, however, that hope didn’t really pan out. The sheer quantity and length of these essays was more than I bargained for, but I still found them interesting and educational. The Literati really provides the reader with a glimpse of Poe’s idiosyncratic personality and venomous sense of humor, but most fans of Poe’s fiction would find these articles irrelevant to an appreciation of his stories. Those studying poetry, however, would do well to read Poe’s criticism, if for no other reason than to learn how not to write verse.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson



Literacy, publishing, and book collecting in early Western civilization
Libraries in the Ancient World, published in 2001, provides a concise but comprehensive summary of the history of libraries, both private collections and public institutions, from the birth of writing to the dawn of the Middle Ages. Author Lionel Casson was a professor of classical studies at New York University and a winner of the American Institute of Archaeology’s Gold Medal for Distinguished Achievement. As one would expect from a classicist, the “ancient world” referred to in the title lies strictly within the cradle of Western civilization—Greece, the Roman Empire, Egypt, and Mesopotamia—only venturing as far east as Iraq.

Concrete archaeological evidence of ancient libraries is unfortunately very scanty. Thanks to the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum is the one notable exception of an ancient Roman library found preserved intact and in situ, scrolls and all. Portions of ancient library buildings have survived, but their shelves of wood and books of papyrus and parchment have long since disappeared or rotted away. Casson uses these architectural remnants to reconstruct the layouts of ancient public libraries, giving the reader a vivid glimpse into the environments where scholars of ancient Greece and Rome consulted and copied handwritten scrolls. Most of the information we have on ancient libraries, however, comes from references in ancient texts. Though only a fraction of the ancient world’s books have survived, Casson, with an encyclopedic knowledge of extant classical manuscripts, is able to draw a wealth of fascinating detail from the writings of ancient authors.


Casson begins with the origin of libraries in the ancient Near East, when Sumerian cuneiform writing was incised into clay tablets, and then proceeds to Greece and Rome. He covers all the famous libraries one would expect to find in a book on this subject, such as the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh and the great Greek library of Alexandria, but he also discusses lesser-known libraries and privately held collections. The reader gets a thorough education in how libraries were formed, funded, and managed, how they acquired their collections, and how librarians catalogued those collections. Casson expands the scope of the book beyond libraries, however, to cover broader issues of book culture in the ancient literary world. The reader learns about all aspects of the classical book trade, including the materials and methods of book construction, how books were copied and disseminated (since “publishing” as we know it did not really exist), and the rise and role of the bookselling profession. Using statistical and ancient anecdotal evidence, Casson charts the development of writing from a utilitarian to a literary form of expression, the spread of literacy throughout the Greco-Roman world, and the gradual change in format from the scroll to the codex (the book with pages, as we know it today). He even outlines a sort of ancient bestseller list of those books likely to have been the most popular and widely stocked.


Libraries in the Ancient World is very accessible to general readers. It could easily be used as a supplemental text in any undergraduate course, not just in classics or archaeology but also in library science or literature. So as not to intimidate a general audience, the publisher has omitted in-text citation numbers and relegates Casson’s notes and sources to the back of the book, where they are recorded in a supposedly user-friendly nonacademic format that higher-level readers will likely find inhospitable. Nevertheless, anyone interested in rare books or the literary origins of Western civilization will enjoy Casson’s fascinating revelations on ancient bibliographic history.

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Monday, June 8, 2020

The Mariner of St Malo: A Chronicle of the Voyages of Jacques Cartier by Stephen Leacock



Mostly just the wheres and whens
Jacques Cartier
The Mariner of St Malo was published in 1914 as Volume 2 of the Chronicles of Canada, a series of books on Canadian history that would ultimately amount to 32 volumes. This second volume is devoted to the French explorer Jacques Cartier, who first arrived in Canada in 1534. Cartier is popularly known as the “Discoverer of Canada,” or by some the “Father of Canada,” but to non-Canadian readers it is not readily apparent why, since he was not the first European to set foot on Canadian lands. Even if one overlooks the Norse explorers who established settlements in Newfoundland and Labrador around the year 1000, European fishing voyages to these coasts were not uncommon by Cartier’s time. Nor was Cartier the first explorer to touch upon Canadian shores. That would be Englishman John Cabot in 1497, followed by João Fernandes Lavrador of Portugal and Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine who sailed for France (all of whom are covered in the first volume of the Chronicles of Canada series). Cartier, however, was the one who first named the land Canada and claimed it for France. He voyaged beyond the Atlantic Coast into the Saint Lawrence River to the Iroquoian villages of Stadacona (at what is now Quebec City) and Hochelaga (now Montreal). Cartier made three voyages to Canada, the last of which established the first French Canadian settlement at the site of present-day Quebec City.

The author of this account of Cartier’s voyages is Stephen Leacock, a well-known and much respected writer in Canadian literary history. Though he wrote other works of history and biography, Leacock is primarily known as a humorist and author of fiction. There is certainly nothing wrong with Leacock’s writing here, but he seems a bit reined in by the format of the Chronicles of Canada series. Far from an attempt at a comprehensive or authoritative account, this reads more like a book from one of the Time-Life series that were so popular in America a few decades ago. There are only 120 pages of text, and what you get is really just a bare-bones summary. It often reads like simply a list of places where Cartier landed, and the dates in which he was anchored there.


The text goes into a little more detail regarding his interactions with the First Nations people. The events are told, however, in a very romanticized style that depicts Canada as a veritable Garden of Eden, much like America is depicted in folkloric tales of its first Thanksgiving. Cartier’s treatment of the Indigenous is less reprehensible than most other explorers of his century, but the text does mention a few questionable acts that are quickly glossed over. The most interesting chapter in the book discusses what happened after Cartier’s three voyages. The first French settlement, Charlesbourg-Royal, became Canada’s equivalent to America’s lost colony of Roanoke. Leacock also reveals indications that Cartier may have made an undocumented fourth trip to Canada.


The Mariner of St Malo provides an adequate overview of Cartier’s discoveries, but the minimal level of detail makes for a largely unsatisfying exploration narrative. Leacock is not entirely at fault since part of the blame can likely be attributed to Cartier himself for the scant source material he left behind. This book piqued my interest enough, however, to make me want to read Cartier’s original account. The Public Archives of Canada published an annotated English translation of Cartier’s writings in 1924 entitled The Voyages of Jacques Cartier, edited by H. P. Biggar, which promises a more thorough history than this Chronicles of Canada volume.

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Fuzzy Sapiens by H. Beam Piper



Less profound than its predecessor
Over the course of his career, science fiction writer H. Beam Piper established a fictional timeline known as the Terro-Human Future History, which consists of a total of 16 novels and short stories. Like Frank Herbert’s Dune, Piper’s speculative history charts the diaspora of the human race over thousands of years as we spread out through the stars to colonize other planets. One such world is the planet Zarathustra, where a trilogy of novels takes place roughly 600 years from now. This trilogy, known as the Fuzzy series, began with Little Fuzzy, published in 1962. Its sequel was published in 1964 under the title of The Other Human Race. In 1976, however, the title was changed to Fuzzy Sapiens, which has stuck with it ever since.

You don’t have to know much about Piper’s Terro-Human Future History to enjoy the Fuzzy books, but you do need to have read Little Fuzzy to understand what’s going on in Fuzzy Sapiens. The story of this sequel begins about a week after the events related in Little Fuzzy. In that first book, a gem prospector named Jack Holloway discovered a species of monkey-like beings, dubbed fuzzies. A legal battle ensued between Holloway’s friends, who asserted that fuzzies are an intelligent life form that deserves human rights, and a resource-exploiting corporation, who asserted that fuzzies are just dumb animals. This brought up some fascinating philosophical debates about the nature of what it means to be human, but since a decision was reached at the end of Little Fuzzy, the Fuzzy franchise shows it is losing steam in this second installment.


In the week that has passed since the first novel ended, Jack Holloway and most of his cronies have been appointed to government positions. Piper, when writing science fiction, enjoys playing with imaginary governments like other people enjoy playing chess. In this novel, the fledgling government of Zarathustra encounters a few fuzzy-related problems they need to solve, and Piper moves his civil servants around the bureaucratic game board to get them resolved. Despite quite a bit of recapping, it is still quite difficult to keep track of which characters in this large ensemble cast are scientists, lawyers, administrators, military officers, and so on. The corporate villains from the last book have now proven they’re not evil after all, so everyone works together towards a common good. Piper introduces a few new villains, but they are just discussed in absentia for most of the book while the heroes go about their administrative duties.


An undocumented fuzzy surprisingly shows up in a main character’s office, and no one knows where he came from. This leads to suspicions that some nefarious gangsters may be capturing fuzzies for slavery or human trafficking. Meanwhile, Holloway and friends are setting up an agency for people to adopt fuzzies as pets, which quite frankly doesn’t seem all that different from fuzzy trafficking. While so much ado was made in the last book about the humanness of the fuzzies, in this novel they are reduced to something equivalent to housecats that talk. Piper previously used the fuzzy species to comment on imperialism, colonialism, and Indigenous rights, but here the only parallel is that the independent fuzzies are confined to a reservation, similar to Native Americans, which Piper portrays as a good thing.


Piper’s imaginative writing is still entertaining as always, but unlike its predecessor this fuzzy sequel just feels empty of meaningful ideas. It doesn’t make me excited to read the third book in the trilogy, Fuzzies and Other People, which wasn’t published until 1984, two decades after Piper’s death.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker



An odyssey of geodesy
In his 2004 nonfiction book The Mapmaker’s Wife, Robert Whitaker takes a refreshing new look at the eighteenth century experiment known as the French Geodesic Mission. This was the first scientific expedition (as opposed to military, commercial, or religious expeditions) by Europeans to explore the interior of South America. Under the leadership of three French scientists, the explorers departed France in 1735 for what is now Ecuador (what was then Peru). The primary purpose of the mission was to measure a degree of latitude at the equator in order to confirm Isaac Newton’s theories about the shape of the Earth. This is often known as the La Condamine expedition, because geographer Charles Marie de La Condamine wrote the most popular account of the journey. Whitaker informs us, however, that astronomer Louis Godin was actually the senior scientist of the team. Godin’s younger cousin, Jean Godin, served as an assistant cartographer to the expedition. It is he who married a Peruvian creole woman named Isabel Gramesón, the Mapmaker’s Wife of the book’s title.

The French Geodesic Mission was really a fascinating enterprise, and Whitaker does a great job of providing an abridged yet comprehensive account of the journey and its aftermath. Though the primary goals of the expedition were cartographic, the scientists involved also made important discoveries in zoology, botany, geology, and anthropology. Whitaker vividly describes the incredible hardships these explorers had to endure in order to measure a straight line across hundreds of miles of harsh terrain. The mission lasted about a decade, during which time team members had to take side jobs to generate income to keep going. Eventually the explorers split up and went their separate ways, allowing for several fascinating spin-off stories about what became of them.

After relating the history of the expedition, Whitaker then recounts the exploits of Isabel Gramesón, whose heart-wrenching story is little-known in the United States. Jean Godin, in the process of attempting to bring his wife home to France, ends up stranded thousands of miles away, and the couple are separated for years. Isabel determines to make a perilous voyage down the Amazon to reunite with her husband in French Guiana. Whitaker painstakingly describes the terrible hardships she faced and her almost saintly perseverance in overcoming them. Compared to the chapters on the geodesic expedition, which are based largely on the accounts of the explorers themselves, Whitaker seems to take more poetic license with Isabel’s story by elaborating on the sights and sounds she would have seen and heard, and the thoughts and feelings she would have experienced. She never wrote her own story, so some of what happened in the Amazonian jungle is open to speculation. Of course, the fact that there is any story to tell at all effectively gives away the ending, but that doesn’t make Isabel’s journey any less compelling

Though geodesic science may not be the most alluring subject for many general readers, Whitaker does a fine job of explaining complex scientific concepts and complicated historical context in lively and articulate prose that general readers will find engaging. At the same time, however, he doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence by dumbing down the content. On the down side, I’ve read hundreds of ebooks on my Kindle, but this is the first one I’ve ever come across where all the illustrations and almost all the maps are the size of postage stamps and can’t be enlarged, thus essentially rendering them useless.
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Monday, June 1, 2020

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James



Overly highbrow ghost story
The Turn of the Screw, a novella by American-turned-British author Henry James, was originally published in serial form in 1898 issues of Collier’s Weekly magazine. I’m not sure why it is generally considered a novella, since it is certainly long enough to qualify as a novel. Perhaps amid the oeuvre of Henry James this is a short work, but it is definitely quite longer than it needs to be. Despite being a highly revered example of a Victorian ghost story, The Turn of the Screw proves itself neither horrifying nor entertaining, just rather tedious.

The novella begins with an unnecessary introduction. A group of friends are gathered around a fire exchanging stories. One of them happens to have an extensive manuscript given to him by a former acquaintance, a fictional memoir that makes up the rest of the book. The author of this manuscript, at the time her narrative opens, is a young woman looking for employment as a governess. She receives a peculiar offer from a Londoner to reside at his country estate, called Bly, and educate his niece and nephew, of whose guardianship he has assumed following his brother’s death. The gentleman makes it clear that he rarely if ever visits Bly himself, and he wants the governess to simply handle matters out there without ever bothering him under any circumstances. After having accepted the position, she arrives at Bly and meets her young charges, a girl of eight named Flora and a boy of ten named Miles. Although Miles has been expelled from boarding school for reasons unknown, the two children exhibit unusually angelic behavior—so angelic, in fact, that the governess suspects they may be hiding something.

Since it is common knowledge that this is a ghost story, what they may be hiding should come as no surprise. While the behavior of the children is a little creepy, and the paranormal happenings at Bly are uncanny, neither is by any means frightening. In fact, when apparitions of the dead begin to reveal themselves, the governess and her coworker, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, respond to such terrifying occurrences with remarkably blasé attitudes. They barely feel threatened enough to alter their daily routines. At one point Flora goes missing, and Mrs. Grose is more upset that the little girl went out without her hat than by the fact that a child is missing in an isolated country estate inhabited by spirits of the deceased. In addition to ghosts, another shocking Victorian horror yields its ugly head: a woman who may have fornicated with a man beneath her station. Egads!

Though the title may call to mind a torturous Edgar Allan Poe tale, it’s really just an irrelevant figure of speech that’s uttered twice during the narrative. Unlike Poe (or any number of horror writers of this era—Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert W. Chambers, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Hope Hodgson, H. G. Wells, and so on), James doesn’t realize that horror fiction should be both sufficiently macabre and at least a little fun. Instead, he takes a more Joseph Conrad approach by drowning his tale in pretentious verbiage until all the amusement is smothered out of it.

The introductory fireside scene is not bookended with a conclusion. The story of the governess ends abruptly and quite inconclusively, with many important questions left unanswered. The tepid anticlimax leaves the reader with the feeling that one’s time has been wasted. Given James’s literary reputation, he may very well be one of the English language’s master practitioners of the literary arts, but that doesn’t mean he can write a good ghost story. The Turn of the Screw is a dull and overrated work.
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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Sleeper Awakes by H. G. Wells



Rip Van Winkle’s class war
English author H. G. Wells is best known as one of the fathers of science fiction, but he was also a passionate socialist who wrote many works of social criticism. On more than a few occasions he merged both interests into novels and stories of future utopian and dystopian societies. One such Wells novel, When the Sleeper Wakes, was originally published in 1899. Wells later released a revised version in 1910 under the title of The Sleeper Awakes. It is this latter edition that I am reviewing, though I don’t believe the two versions differ significantly in plot.

Like many futuristic novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The Sleeper Awakes features a present-day hero who unexpectedly finds himself in the world of the future. The mode of time displacement that Wells relies on in this case is the sleeper scenario from the old folktale of Rip Van Winkle. An Englishman named Graham falls into a coma and wakes up 203 years later in the year 2100, not having aged a bit. One interesting (though rather nonsensical) twist that Wells gives to this old chestnut is that Graham’s financial investments have been compounding for two centuries, making him the richest man in the world. In fact, he literally owns the world. The human race recognizes him as the Master of the World and has eagerly awaited the day he would awake to take his throne. For his own protection, however, Graham’s handlers keep him on a tight leash until he can acclimate himself to the new world order.


It soon becomes apparent that the committee of trustees who has been managing Graham’s affairs for two centuries have set themselves up as a tyrannical oligarchy, known as the White Council, who govern the world with an iron hand. When word gets out of Graham’s awakening, a revolution erupts. He is freed by a group of rebels under the leadership of a man named Ostrog. As these two warring factions reign destruction on each other with futuristic weapons, Graham is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of war. Knocked about in all directions by the frenzied mobs, he finds himself lost amid the war-torn streets of London.


Wells deliberately makes the battle scenes chaotic and disorienting, with the result that it’s often difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. Equally confusing is the fact that very few of the characters have names. Most are simply referred to as “the man in black,” “the man in yellow,” etc. This futuristic society has a color-coded system of apparel based on class. The oligarchy wears white and the laborers light blue, but I could never get a bearing on what the various other hues were supposed to stand for. The novel’s most cringeworthy color category is the Black Police—literally, black police—stormtroopers imported from Africa to rain hell on “poor white trash” (Wells actually uses that phrase). Wells rather blatantly and bigotedly implies that their very blackness brings with it a heightened degree of barbarity and cruelty.


All the uprisings, coups, and carnage leave almost no time for Wells to explain what these people are actually rebelling against. The reader has to wait until chapter 20 (out of 25) to get the political, economic, and social overview that usually comprises the bulk of utopian or dystopian novels. Considering Wells was such a staunch socialist, it’s surprising that there’s really only one chapter that focuses on the plight of the working class. For the most part, The Sleeper Awakes reads like an adventure that Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard might have written, and not a particularly good one. The racism certainly doesn’t help. If it’s a dystopian novel of socialist revolution you’re looking for, there is none better than Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

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