A Little History of Literature

little historyJohn Sutherland provides what is promised, sort of…  It is a little history of literature, well, really mostly a little history of English literature.  And by English literature, I mean from England, not from English speaking countries.  Although he does start with the epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey – how could he ignore those – he rarely branches out after that.  While Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and other English authors and poets have their own chapters, and rightfully so, he dedicates only single chapter to American literature, with very small references to many great American authors.  There are also mentions of American authors, and authors from other countries, sprinkled in other chapters where he discusses popular literature, e-books, publishing, and other general literary subjects.

Having gotten my chief complaint out of the way, since I was hoping for a more well-rounded representation of literature, the book did provide a wonderful little history of chiefly English literature.  The information is provided in an informal tone, with interesting insights into the cultural, personal, and historical influences.  Intermingled with the chapters about specific authors are chapters about the history of the literary industry, providing readers with an opportunity to consider these impacts as well.  Anyone who loves literature, and wants to gain greater insight into the history of English literature, will find this an interesting and easy read.

Title: A Little History of Literature
Author: John Sutherland
Genre: Non-Fiction, History, Literature
Pages: 288
Publication: Yale University Press, November 2013

Book of Ages

book of ages

The story of the life of Jane Franklin is told through her correspondence with her brother Benjamin Franklin, whose accomplishment and wealth are in sharp contrast to her life of struggle, disappointment and poverty.  There were many times when I wondered why Ben Franklin, who is shown to be self-absorbed and egotistical on more than one occasion, didn’t swoop in and save Jane and her children from their difficult lives, providing more than the books that Jane requested and cherished.  Later in his life he did provide for his youngest sister, making sure that she was comfortable and cared for in her old age, once most of her children had died in poverty.  Even then, although he wrote more letters to her than anyone else in his lifetime, he never mentioned her in his own autobiography…  what’s up with that Ben??

Well-read and opinionated, with her own political insights, one wonders what Jane’s life would have become had she been born in a different time.   I don’t typically consider myself a “feminist” but the differences in the situations and opportunities for these two siblings are evident and unfortunate.  The lack of opportunity for her to use her intelligence and pursue her passions, disturbingly little assistance available for dealing with her children’s medical and mental problems, and a weak debt-ridden husband left Jane with little hope for contentment, let alone achievement, in her life.

Well-written, with amazingly detailed research, it is an engrossing story of an unknown woman who just happened to have a famous brother.

“In the eighteenth century, history and fiction split. Benjamin Franklin’s life entered the annals of history; lives like his sister’s became the subject of fiction. Histories of great men, novels of little women.”  

Title: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Author: Jill Lepore
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biographical, History
Pages: 464
Publication: Knopf,  October 2013

Hothouse

hothouseHothouse provides an insider’s glimpse into the publishing world, following independent publishing house Farrar, Straus, & Giroux from its inception to the present-day.   Focusing largely on Roger Straus and his role, it is the tale of a literary Mad Men, full of gossip, sex, betrayal, maneuvering, schmoozing, smoking and drinking.  And then there is Giroux, quiet, head-down, working to get things done.  Two opposites that created one of the most celebrated and successful independent publishers.  There is nothing glamorous in this publishing house other than the impressive list of authors and works that came through their doors.

Overall, the book told a fascinating story, well-researched and informational, full of the conflict between art and commercial success and what happens long before a book ever reaches the shelves.  Unfortunately, there were times when it became bogged down in the details – too many names and too many dates and too many deals that added little to the overall narrative.  Occasional jumps throughout the timeline were also a bit confusing and required the re-reading of a section.  In spite of these minor annoyances, for a bibliophile like me it was an intriguing look into the industry that makes it all happen.

Title: Hothouse: The Art of Survival and Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Author: Boris Kachka
Genre: Non-Fiction, Publishing, History, Business
Pages: 448
Publication: Simon & Schuster , August 2013

I Am A Man

i am a man

I had the honor of receiving a scholarship to attend the annual conference of the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL).  So back in September I packed my bags and headed to Omaha for a long weekend.  The weather and the city were both lovely and my peers were insightful, sharp, and funny.  I came back home with new ideas and new energy.  While I was there, I also had the opportunity to meet a number of fantastic speakers – Lee Rainie, the Director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, Craig Johnson, the author of the popular Longmire series (also a TV series on AMC!), and Joe Starita, the author of I Am A Man, the true story of Chief Standing Bear.

To be fair, it was difficult to write an unbiased review of the book.  Joe Starita is certainly an oral storyteller and listening to him speak inspired me to devour this book and this story, even through parts of the book that seemed to drag.  While the passion that is so evident in Starita’s speaking style does not always translate into his written work, it is a truly amazing story, well-researched, and well-worth reading.

In 1877 Chief Standing Bear is forced to travel with his family and the rest of the Ponca tribe to the Indian Territory, never to return to their homeland, leaving behind their homes, their farms, their possessions, and their burial grounds.   Devastated by disease, the environment, and arduous travels, a small group of Ponca join Chief Standing Bear as he attempts to make the 600 mile journey back to his homeland for one reason only – to bury his son.  I Am A Man chronicles his journey, not only to the Indian Territory and back, but his journey to justice – to the Federal Courts in a case against the United States Government – in his quest to be treated as a man.  In the midst of horrendous and inexplicable circumstances, his fortitude and his faith are inspirational.

Title: I am a Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice
Author: Joe Starita
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Pages: 288
Publication:  St. Martin’s Griffin, January 2010

The Thieves of Book Row

thieves

An amazingly interesting book on the well-organized, unbelievably large ring of book thieves that terrorized public and academic libraries throughout the Northeast throughout the early 1900s, peaking during the Great Depression.  No library was immune, from small reading rooms to NYPL and Harvard University, valuable and important books, maps, and pamphlets flew off the shelves into the hands of these prolific thieves who had to procure warehouses to store all of their stolen materials.  From first editions of Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter to Edgar Allen Poe’s Al-Aaraaf, these thieves boldly walked into the rare book rooms of libraries and walked out with treasures.

Interestingly, many of the security measures used by libraries today (special markings in the books, rare book rooms, security and investigators) were founded during this time.  Unfortunately, it seemed that as soon as libraries employed new security techniques, the thieves found ways to overcome them.  In steps a mild-mannered special investigator from the NYPL, G. William Bergquist, determined to find the missing Al-Aaraaf and to stop this gang of thieves.

I was shocked to learn that in spite of the high value of the items, even when thieves were caught, the legal system was rarely concerned with prosecution and incarceration in line with the crimes committed.  There also seemed to be little or no impact on professional perceptions of those who were found to be thieves, and those who knowingly received and sold the stolen goods.  It was an expected, known, and often accepted aspect of doing business.   Often, after a brief jail term, the criminals were back in business, earning enough money to retire in the Caribbean!

A fun and interesting book for anyone interested in criminal activities or the history of rare books.

Title:  Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It
Author:  Travis McDade
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 240
Publication: Oxford University Press, June 2013