Category Archives: Reading

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.

Reading report: ‘Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen’

Hans C. Heg
Col. Hans Christian Heg

The Norwegian soldiers had a reputation for never retreating in battle, and their courage resulted in their regiment being among those regiments suffering the greatest losses in the American Civil War. (Translation mine.)

When I’m manning a bookselling table for hours on end at a Sons of Norway convention, my greatest concern is generally to have sufficient reading material. Although I do almost all my reading on my Kindle Fire nowadays, one has to consider battery life. Also, I have a few “dead tree” books I’ve been accumulating. The convention seemed a good opportunity to read one of those. And if it’s in Norwegian, it has the advantage of allowing me to show off, and who knows, maybe somebody will walk past looking for a translator.

So I chose a book called Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen (Rogalanders in the American Civil War. Rogaland is a county in Norway, from which my dad’s father’s family came). It was written by Arne Halvorsen and Mari Anne Næsheim Hall. Mari Anne is a friend of mine – she was the person who first put me in touch with Prof. Titlestad, author of Viking Legacy. She sent me a copy, and I was keen to read it.

The most renowned “Norwegian” regiment during the Civil War was the 15th Wisconsin, commanded by Col. Hans C. Heg, who was killed at Chickamauga. Wisconsin was more or less the center of Norwegian-American settlement at that point in time, but a number of other soldiers came from Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and (in lesser numbers) from other places, serving in various units. The reasons for signing up varied – many simply needed the enlistment bonuses. But many also felt honor-bound to demonstrate their loyalty to their new country – a loyalty sometimes doubted by their neighbors. And Norwegians in general were sincerely appalled by the institution of slavery (though there were some Norwegians on the other side – especially from the Norwegian settlements in Texas). Continue reading Reading report: ‘Rogalendinger i den Amerikanske Borgerkrigen’

Reading report: ‘En Herse, Tre Konger,’ by Edvard Eikill

En herse tre konger

What was I reading while I spent the week in Decorah, Iowa doing back-to-the soil, Mother Jones craft stuff? No doubt you’ve been wondering. Obviously it would have to be something pretentious, to show off my erudition to other participants, to compensate for my abysmal artisanal skills. And so it was.

I was reading a Norwegian novel sent to me by the author: En Herse, Tre Konger, (One Hersir, Three Kings) by Edvard Eikill. Mr. Eikill is a retired dentist who has turned his energies to fiction and translation. He’s the translator of the massive, elegant Norwegian translation of the Icelandic Flatøybok that I’ve written about here before. We’re friends on Facebook, and he asked me if I’d read his novel about Erling Skjalgsson. I didn’t know anyone else had ever written fiction about Erling, so I was interested to read the book, which he kindly sent me.

Edvard Eikill is a rather different kind of novelist than I am (though he is a Christian). He spends less time with details and setting scenes. His book surveys Erling’s life more or less at the 30,000 foot level, moving fast through Erling’s life, hitting the highlights. Oddly (to me), far more time is spent on Olav Trygvasson’s five-year reign than Olav Haraldsson’s reign of about twelve years.

But it had to be useful to me to read a book about Erling by someone who lives in Erling’s area (though I did catch what I believe to be one historical error – Mr. Eikill thinks they harvested grain with scythes in Jaeder in the Viking Age, but my research indicates they only ever used sickles). There were historical details and relationships that had sailed over my head. I’ll probably clarify some things in my Work In Progress based on this book.

Also, Erling’s priest was an interesting contrast. Here, Erling’s priest is an Englishman named Alvgeir (which seems to be the name written on Erling’s memorial cross). Eikill imagines him as a slave, taken by Erling on a raid, and freed by him after his conversion by Olav Trygvasson.

Thanks to Mr. Eikill for sending En Herse, Tre Konger to me. It was enjoyable and illuminating.

Go Read, Young Man

Barnabas Piper recommends reading stories more than guidebooks, saying, “If men read fewer books on manhood and more really good stories they’d be much better for it.” He offers six reasons for this, one of them is on expressing emotions.

Men are often (not always) inhibited in our expressions of emotion. We can struggle to know when and how to give voice to our passions, both positive and negative. Stories give both example and lessons in how to do this. They show the benefit to being open and the harm that comes from locking feelings and passions away. But they do so in a palatable way by showing it in the lives of others.

Many of us define productivity in a way that rules out stories. We think reviewing a line of argument or series of purported facts accomplishes more than simply entertaining ourselves with a story, but as Piper says, we change, we influence ourselves, by the environment in which we live. Stories are part of that environment just as dinners with friends, serving our community, and riding horses may be.

If life is about learning, what do we learn from our environment? Who loves us and how do we know? Is it because they’ve said so or because we’ve understood their love from being around them, their actions, tones, and expressions? We know all manner of things without direct expression, not necessarily in the absence of such expression but more through living in the light of them. The Lord tells us repeatedly of his faithfulness, but how do we really know he is faithful? It’s when we see it in our lives–in our own story.

Reading fiction and non-fiction stories from others helps us understand ourselves and how other people think. If we ever ask, “How could anyone think that way?” stories will help answer that question. I remember a friend saying he thought a character in Lewis’s Great Divorce was unrealistic because he’d never known someone like him. The man didn’t want to know the truth; he only wanted to talk about issues and offer his opinion. Settling on an established truth meant the conversation and his contribution to it would be over. My friend thought this was ridiculous until he met someone who actually thought this way. His understanding of human nature was stretched before he knew it was possible.

But life isn’t about learning, is it? That’s only a part of it. Perhaps I’ll write about that another time, though it would be better to write a story about it.

Lost Quotations and Proverbs

I’m looking over some lost quotations and proverbs tonight, lost because they are collected in W. Gurney Benham’s A Book of Quotations: Proverbs and Household Words, published in 1907, an ugly volume I plan to throw out because I’ve wasted twenty years of my life with it sitting on my shelf.

Great Scot! The Interwebs have revealed their Mastery of All The Things by producing a copy of Benham’s book in its archives, so I guess it isn’t lost after all — if buried under 305 billion pages of Interweb means it is not lost.

But what was I saying? I’ve kept this book because of its curious collection. After the typical Bartlett’s stuff, it has a section of “waifs and strays,” “naturalised phrases,” and toasts, followed by Greek and Latin quotations, French and Spanish quotations, and then a long list of English proverbs. It’s the non-English language quotations that seemed most valuable to me. Where else would I find a curated list of pearls and miscellany from the past?

Quid enim salvis infamia nummis?
What indeed is infamy as long as our money is safe?

Going to ruin is silent work.

Omnis homo mendax.
Every man is a liar.

C’est l’imagination qui gouverne le genre humain.
It is imagination which rules the human race.

Quid Romae faciam? mentiri nescio.
What can I do at Rome? I do not know how to lie.

Vulnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni.
She cherishes the wound in her veins and is consumed by an unseen fire.

But whether we have less or more,
Alway thank we God therefor.

“Let bookworms gnaw his entrails…”

Are you troubled by “friends” who borrow your books and never return them? Or return them soiled and dog-eared? Atlas Obscura reports on a book that describes the drastic measures medieval librarians employed — placing curses on the heads of book thieves and mutilators.

“These curses were the only things that protected the books,” says Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses. “Luckily, it was in a time where people believed in them. If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance.”

Read it all here.