Category Archives: Reading

Do Celebrity Book Clubs Sell Books?

Reese Whitherspoon has taken up the challenge of recommending books to fans and followers. Vox says it is an extension of her personal image. “Witherspoon’s star image is based on the idea of Witherspoon as smart and driven and bookish — in a funny way, a likable way.”

Some of her selections have sold hundreds of thousands, which is very exciting for those select authors; but this article has a remarkable detail about the book industry as a whole. It says that with 300,000+ new titles published in the US every year and 2,200,000+ published worldwide, readers want to get recommendations from celebrities they trust.

But here’s the shocker. Though sales of selected books soared when Oprah picked them, the overall sale of books that year stayed within expectations. “Exactly as many people bought books as were already going to buy books.” More readers are reading certain books, but apparently more people are not reading. Or at least they are not buying books to read.

In 2018, Pew Research reported that three out of four Americans read one book in any format last month, and that rate has been steady since 2012.

List of recommended sagas

From thedockyards.com: A list of “10 Medieval Icelandic Sagas One Should Absolutely Read.”

However, these medieval literary creations innovated in that they revolved around the lives and deeds of real common people and their genealogies, as opposed to the largely moralistic, fairytale-like writings of the time in mainland Europe, where the main characters were knights or princes. The legacy of the sagas continues to live on up to our times, having inspired, among others, the setting and the mythical races of major high fantasy novels such as those from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.

It’s a pretty good list. I’d suggest reading Eyrbyggja Saga as a companion to Laxdaela. But that would bump one of the others from the list, and I’ll admit Laxdaela is the better of the two.

When the Majority Become Cultural Snobs

I’ve been thinking to write a thoughtful something about the third season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones. When I started watching it a few weeks ago, I noticed I had forgotten the big storyline from season two, but I remembered that I did not blog about it. Something wasn’t there. Maybe I wasn’t provoked enough (or maybe the sexual aspects of it held me back).

The third season continued to lean into that part of the story. Though Hogarth’s struggle was compelling, it was also awful and fairly ugly. The first season felt like Jessica’s gritty origin story, but now that season three is over, the whole series feels like her protracted story of coming into hero work. She needs Edna Mode to smack her around to help her find her destiny.

But I was talking about something else.

I have watched Stranger Things 3 more recently and may write something about the Upside Down, but Brooke Clark says pretending a TV series is a mature work of thoughtful deliberation does not redeem our interest in it.

Although we are trained to believe in books, we find ourselves watching shows about dragons, criminals, and covens. This leads to cultural status anxiety—a feeling that we aren’t really as sophisticated as we think, because when given the choice, we’d rather flip on HBO than pick up Middlemarch.

There are two ways out of this cognitive dissonance: we can admit our tastes aren’t really as elevated as we like to believe, or we can convince ourselves that television is actually an example of high culture.

We may not have gotten away from what W. H. Auden said decades ago in “The Poet & The City” : “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.” (via Prufrock News)

Photo by Huỳnh Đạt from Pexels

On Mulling over a Library Book Sale

My local library has a few shelves to the left of the doors that hold for-sale books. They’ve dragged out more shelves for a larger sale at times, but I think they’ve settled into a simple pattern of perpetual selling. The Chattanooga library system just had its semi-annual book sale in our shopping-mall-turned-town-center. I have wanted to take my kids to one of these, but I forget year after year.

(BTW, when people talk about malls as a thing of the past, they aren’t in the past here yet. We still have nice, old school shopping malls with food courts and big department stores. We just got a Cheesecake Factory this year, which seems to be riding on the reputation of other restaurants in the franchise because it struck me as high-end fast food.)

Was I talking about books? Oh, yeah. The no-longer-shopping-mall space has a library book sale at least once a year. Luke Holmes went to a similar sale Oklahoma City and noted the not-so-classics available there.

There are piles of books that promise me they will be the next big thing. Learn how to capture the Zim Zum or Chazown, or how to have your best life now. There are enough books about bettering your life to build a house with, not to mention all the books about prayer, leadership, and integrity from those men who were found to be acting in their own power, abusing women, or stealing money.

He draws from this a few good thoughts. Yes, as the wise man once said, of the writing and fussing over books there will be no end until the sun finally boils the ocean. So read something good, friend.

Write History as You Would Want to Be Written About

If only all history teachers would take a Golden Rule approach as Yale professor Mark A. Peterson does. It would revive history as a viable college major. (via John Wilson)

“If you take seriously the moral reality of historical subjects as equal to your own and write about them with the respect they deserve, I think that is a valuable skill in terms of how you conduct yourself in your daily life,” says Peterson. “In that regard, I see a serious engagement with the humanities as the most essential thing that anyone can pursue in college. Even subjects that we don’t always associate with ‘the humanities’ such as engineering, computer science, and chemistry deserve the kind of scrutiny that humanistic thinking teaches, the capacity to imagine and interrogate how the discoveries we make and the things we invent will shape the lives, for better or worse, of real human beings like ourselves, our fellow inhabitants of humanity’s only planet.”

An authorial sin

When I spend substantial time with a book, and then throw it aside in frustration, half-finished, I don’t like to name the work or its author publicly. After all, I haven’t given either of them the full time they asked for. But I sometimes want to tell you about it, anyway, in case it might be of some use – especially if you’re a writer.

So it is with the book I 86’d over the Easter weekend. It shall remain nameless. It shall not go unchastened.

It was promoted as a sort of Wodehousian comedy, and I guess it was. In a way. It was generally lacking in actual funny lines, but the author did a fairly good job of building up ridiculous situations, so that I sometimes chuckled over the altitude of the gag, if I can put it that way.

But he offended me – as a Scarlet Letter puritan – by treating it as a matter of course that a couple will fall into bed the very evening they fall in love. It got worse when I learned that the (admittedly charming) main female character had been married before to a man who adored her and was faithful, but had dumped him because she wanted more excitement in her life.

That ain’t funny, in my world.

And then, about halfway through the book, the hero made a stupid, stupid decision. A decision calculated to bring him trouble and put him on the run from the law. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d ever do the stupid thing. It was illogical and imprudent. Worse than that, it was out of character.

In other words, it looked as if the author had forced the decision on him against his will, simply to keep the plot going. If he’d done anything that made sense, the story would have been over. And happily.

My righteous writer’s fury blazed up against this author, and I cast his book into the outer darkness of Kindle limbo.

Go and do thou differently, O writer.

Summary of Lost Books Found

Many years ago (before you were born I’m sure) Hernando Colón, son of Christopher Columbus, collected many books from around the world–close to 15,000 tomes.

After amassing his collection, Colón employed a team of writers to read every book in the library and distill each into a little summary in Libro de los Epítomes, ranging from a couple of lines long for very short texts to about 30 pages for the complete works of Plato, which Wilson-Lee dubbed the “miracle of compression”.

— Alison Flood, The Guardian

That summary, The Libro de los Epítomes, was picked up by the Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon and donated with his collection to the University of Copenhagen in 1730. It has now been rediscovered for the gold mine into forgotten reading that it is and will be made digital next year, giving us good look into the printed material being read in those days. (via Prufrock News)

The Generation that Reads the Most

A grain of salt may be needed here. Research from this decade is showing 80 percent of millennials are reading books in one format or another. They prefer print but also enjoy ebooks and audiobooks. This generation (born b/w 1981 and 1996) use public libraries more than any other generation but also tend to buy the books they read. Keep these stats in mind when you see the next slate of research on millennial reading habits.

INFOGRAPHIC: The Surprising Reading Habits of Millennials

Hey, millennial, tell us how you read. Do you prefer books, use libraries, and read much or only a bit?

Photo by Fabiola Peñalba on Unsplash

Personal Libraries

When asked about their personal libraries, these writers said this.

Richard Brookhiser: “The Brookhiser Decimal System depends on memory. Why is volume 2 of My Struggle (Karl Ove Knausgaard) next to Churchill, Roosevelt & Company(Lewis Lehrman)? Because I put them there, and I know that is where I can go to find them. (Sometimes I am distracted by ghost memories of the locations of books I have given away.)” He also loves Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child.

Joseph Epstein: “One [bookcase] contains the works of the authors I most admire along with books about them . . . A bookcase alongside it contains exclusively Library of America books, which look, if I may say so, better than they read (the typeface and leading leave much to be desired), a number of which I’ve not read, and a few more of which I have no wish to read. “

Micah Mattix on his library’s disorganization: “I have developed an attachment to the inefficiency of trying to find that damn Sophocles or godforsaken Gregory Corso. Plus, it reminds me of life — disordered, exasperating, but punctuated by the momentary thrill of finding just the thing you’re looking for. “

Terry Teachout: “Unwealthy New Yorkers can’t afford homes large enough to amass libraries, and while degenerate city collectors keep books in the oven, I’ve never been reduced to that pitiful extremity. ” (via Terry Teachout)

Why We Read Fiction?

We suffer from a worldly sickness engineered by the Enlightenment project, a misapprehension of reason as the highest faculty and as dislocated from our imagination. Such an assumption leads us to consider literature as unwarranted; Novels and poems play with our emotions, we think, and clutter our pure reason. But what if our emotions help us register our humanity, guiding us in moral decision-making? C. S. Lewis argues as much in The Abolition of Man. How we imagine God, the world, and our place in relation to both transforms how we act. Great literature trains the moral imagination.

Jessica Hooten Wilson, “In Praise of Useless Reading,” TGC, Jan. 25

Lewis: Not Jack, but chessmen

I’m continuing to read (and enjoy) Nancy Marie Brown’s Ivory Vikings, about the Lewis chessmen. In spite of my enjoyment, I’m making slow progress in reading. So I have embedded the short video above to give you some background, if you’re interested.

Fun fact from Brown’s book: The Lewis chessmen are the oldest we have with “bishops.” Earlier sets used other figures in that position. So they may mark a point of departure in chess history.

It’s not you, Jane. It’s me.

I can only attribute it to mental failure resulting from my advanced age. I thought I was doing a pretty good job keeping the brain nimble by doing challenging mental work.

But if that’s true, how do I explain being unable to read Jane Austen’s Emma?

I’ve read Austen in the past. I recall enjoying Pride and Prejudice quite a lot. I made it through Sense and Sensibility, which I’m told is not the author’s best. Everyone speaks well of Emma.

But I couldn’t bear it. It bored me sick. I didn’t find much to like in any of the characters, except perhaps Mr. Knightly – and he isn’t around that much in the first fifth of the book, which is as far as I got. I especially disliked Mr. Woodhouse. Since I subscribe to the Law of Perverse Criticism (a theory of my own invention, which says that anything that really irritates you is probably something you do yourself), that indicates I’m probably a lot like that fussy old man.

I hereby turn in my Literary Snob card. I hang my head in shame.

Now I’m reading a book about the Lewis Chess Men. That one’s keeping my lowbrow interest.

Saga tropes

I found a list on (of all places) a site called “TV Tropes,” describing common tropes in the sagas. I haven’t studied it exhaustively, but I find nothing here to disagree with . And some of them are amusing:

Color-Coded for Your Convenience: When colorful clothes are mentioned, it’s a hint of what is about to happen for the Genre Savvy. Character wears blue: Character is intent on killing another one. Character wears red: Character will probably get killed soon

Determined Homesteader’s Wife: Norse women worked hard — frequently harder than the men. Side note: While women in Norse society had certain rights that they typically did not have in medieval Christian societies (such as the right to divorce her husband or the right to inherit), by and large Norse society was sexist — women could, for example, not vote in the assembly or hold chieftaincies. In legal affairs, they were usually represented by male relatives.

  • The idea was that, the man is “lord” outside the house, and the wife is “lord” inside the house. As such, she didn’t have much influence in public. Still, she was the one with the “keys”, and it was a socially accepted punishment to lock the husband out of the house should she find it necessary.
  • Lost in Translation: The most obvious example is the key Icelandic social position of godi, which is so impossible to translate into a single English (or most other languages) word that most modern translations simply describe it in detail in the introduction or a footnote and then use it untranslated. Also atgeir, the Weapon of Choice of many saga characters, is often translated as “halberd” despite the fact that nobody is certain whether that’s what it actually was and no actual halberds dating from the saga era have ever been found. Finally, Old Norse poetry is notoriously difficult to translate into other languages thanks to its reliance on wordplay and complex metaphor. In particular, wordplay in poems based on people’s names is often just explained in a footnote.
  • The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything: The view of the 13th and 14th century Icelanders on the viking expeditions of the past was decidedly ambivalent. Horror and moral contempt at these barbaric practices was mixed with pride in the adventurous endeavours of one’s ancestors, bold and daring gentlemen of fortune that they were. As a result, many sagas dealing with viking episodes struggle noticeably with the problem of making protagonists who spend time as sea-raiders look heroic, not horrible. One way to do this is to cover viking expeditions only summarily, generously glossing over the questionable details; another way is to have the heroes get into a clash with other, more villainous vikings, in which the latter are soundly defeated. Thus, the good guys have not only opportunity to prove their bravery against villainous mooks who deserve no better, but also end up with a lot of loot, without the stigma of having it robbed from innocent people. Of course, they never think of giving it back. — The big exception to this rule is, of course, Egil’s Saga, whose eponymous protagonist loots and kills unapologetically for his own enrichment.

A peg-legged legend

Long John Silver

It be our fashion to honor “Talk Like a Pirate Day” here at Brandywine Books, and I’d be a Dutchman if I failed in my bounden duties in that regard. So here’s a tale for ye, mateys, from a book called The Pirates, by Douglas Botting, published in 1978 by Time-Life Books:

The lead-up: In August 1720, an East Indiaman called the Cassandra (an ill-fated name if ever I heard one) was set upon by two pirate vessels commanded by Edward England and John Taylor, off the island of Johanna near Madagascar. The Cassandra’s skipper was James Macrae. Macrae ran his ship aground to escape the attackers, and after ten days in hiding returned to try to negotiate with the freebooters. The pirates were divided in their opinions as to whether to kill the captain or to spare him on account of his bravery.

At a critical moment a fierce-looking, heavily whiskered pirate seaman, with a wooden leg and a belt stuffed with pistols, stomped up the deck swearing like a parrot; taking Macrae by the hand he swore that he knew the captain, he had sailed with him once, and was very glad to see him. “Shew me the man that offers to hurt Captain Macrae,” he roared, “and I’ll stand to him, for an honester fellow I never sailed with.” This unnamed member of Taylor’s crew was to gain immortality many years later as the inspiration for Treasure Island’s Long John Silver.

The pirates allowed Macrae to go free….

Captain Macrae’s savior, however, was not the sole inspiration for “Barbecue” Silver (who used a crutch, not a wooden leg). Author Robert Louis Stevenson told the poet and editor William Ernest Henley, author of “Invictus” (who had one leg), that he was the original.

Shippey on Vikings

My friend Dale Nelson suggested I read Tom Shippey’s Laughing Shall I Die, a book on the Viking Age focusing on its warrior ethos. This isn’t a review, because I’m still reading the book. It’s quite long. But I’m finding it immensely congenial, a book that reinforces my prejudices – and who doesn’t enjoy that? Broadly speaking, it’s a sort of a backlash book against the prevailing consensus in Viking studies, the one that says, “The Vikings were really pretty much like everybody else. They just got bad press because their enemies wrote the history books.” I must admit I’ve said the same sort of thing, especially at reenactment events, but I’ve always held secret reservations.

Shippey (a Tolkien biographer and “the Professor’s” successor at Oxford) says phooey to all that. The Vikings, he says, were masters of violence and of psychological warfare. They won by intimidation, and through belief in something like a death cult. Here’s what he says about the political upheavals that wracked Scandinavia in the time of Beowulf:

Using modern terms, the story is one of centralizing power, professionalization of the military, disappearance of local groups and tribal names, and wars – so Hedeager suggests – to control strategic resources including land and access to bog iron.

The last is a modern view, by a modern scholar who characteristically prefers sensible economic motives for war. Our ancient texts, like Beowulf and Hrolf’s saga, suggest just as plausibly that the wars were undertaken for glory, for revenge, to expand power.