Friday, May 31, 2013

Constrained Writing

Experimental literature seeks to challenge conventional techniques and discover new or better ways of writing.  One such method is called "Constrained Writing," wherein the author is in some way limited.   One of the most common forms of constrained writing is called lipogrammatic writing, in which one or more letters is verboten.

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Ernest Wright's 1939 novel, Gadsby, which contained 50,000 words and not one letter e.


This feat was surpassed in 1969 by French author Georges Perec's La Disparition (the English translation is titled A Void), a 300 page novel also without any e's.

While a challenge like the aforementioned is by no means easy, only certain words are eliminated.  In Michel Thaler's 2004 novel, Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere), an entire type of word is off-limits.  No verbs in this novel.  

An even odder restriction was placed on the novella, Not A Wake, by Michael Keith.  The length of each word is determined by the value of pi.  Hence, "Not A Wake..." and 3.14...   

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

'Cloud Atlas' as a Record of Literary History

If you haven't read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, you're missing out and you may find spoilers in this essay:

            The stylistic differences between the sections of Cloud Atlas are immediately apparent.  The first section is a travel journal from 1850, the second is a series of letters from 1931, the third is a mystery-thriller set in 1975, the fourth is a humorous memoir from the present day, the fifth is an interview from some centuries in the future, and the sixth is a story told orally from the distant future.  Each section is received by a character in the succeeding section (with the exception of the final section).  I posit that the stylistic differences, in addition to fitting with the theme of cyclical history, are representative of the several major movements in fiction across the last few centuries.  

            The first section, The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing, is the journal of a notary from San Francisco, travelling from Sydney to California.  This section represents the pre-romantics, specifically in the 1700’s.  Here’s why: 
            First, the popularity of travel books in the 18th century. Not only were they incredibly popular, but some of the best known literature from that time period was written in the form of travel literature: Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example.  That’s of course ignoring factual works, many of which were written by important authors (e.g. Goethe, Laurence Sterne, Mary Wollstonecraft, etc.), and the popularity of journals of famous explorers like Captain James Cook. 

            Like Gulliver’s Travels, The Pacific Diary of Patrick Ewing focuses on philosophical and sociological matters: the nature of good and evil, the ethics of slavery, the path of history, etc., all of which the narrator is led to ponder due to his experiences on the voyage.  The writing style is also reminiscent of that time and genre:

            “It is pleasant merely to breathe the cooler air.  One loses one’s eye in lanes of sea
             phosphorescence & the Mississippi of stars streaming across the heavens” (Mitchell 38).

            Robert Frobisher, the narrator of the second section (Letters from Zedelghem), after finding the first half of Pacific Diary, has this to say: “Something shifty about the journal’s authenticity – seems too structured to be a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true…” (64).  When Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, he didn’t publish it under his own name.  The credited author was none other than the eponymous Crusoe himself.  It was marketed as a true story.  And while no one would believe that the events in Gulliver’s Travels actually occurred, the novel is structured exactly as a maritime diary.  Frobisher would be familiar with those fictional accounts formatted as truth.

            The second section of the Cloud Atlas, Letters from Zedelghem, takes the form of a series of letters from Robert Frobisher to his ex-lover, Rufus Sixsmith.  Whereas the issues dealt with in Pacific Diary are largely a matter of ethics and philosophy on one hand, or the day to day troubles of voyage on the other, Letters focuses on Frobisher’s emotions.  This section is representative of the Romantics.  Story-wise, the connection to the Romantics is self-evident.  The young man, in a series of letters to a former lover, details his affair with a married woman and subsequent infatuation with her daughter.  Not only that, but the sentimentality and emotional interjections characteristic of Romantic literature are heavily represented in this section. 

            “Summer has taken a sensuous turn: Ayr’s wife and I are lovers.  Don’t alarm yourself!
             Only in the carnal sense… When one unlocks a woman’s body, her box of confidences
             also spills” (68-9).

The contrast, stylistically, between Letters and the following section is almost jarring.

            The third section, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, follows the investigative journalist, Luisa Rey, as she looks into a possibly corrupt nuclear power plant.  This section of Cloud Atlas stands out from the rest for two reasons: It is  the only one written with third person narration and it is the only piece received in the succeeding section as a work of fiction.  Half-Lives represents the Modernists.

            As opposed to Romantic literature, Modernist literature is seen as the literature of disillusionment, its heyday coming on the heels of World War One.  Stylistically, the modernists were less florid than the Romantics.  It is common in Romantic literature to find passages such as “Weep, heart full of love, youth, and life!  Alas, would that I could weep like you!” (Dumas 669).  While not void of Mitchell’s excellent descriptive powers, Half-Lives’s style is much more matter-of-fact than Letters and without the philosophical digressions of Pacific Diary.

            “Luisa Rey glances back.  The guard’s back is turned, so she continues on around a
             corner and into a grid of repeated corridors, chilled and muffled by humming air coolers”
            (Mitchell 104).

            The name, “Luisa Rey,” pays homage to the important modernist novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which, like Cloud Atlas, consists of several connected stories. And, like most modernist literature, holds true to this quote by Luisa Rey:

            “We’ll dip our toes in a predatory, amoral, godless universe – but only our toes” (95).

            As opposed to the post-modernists, whose work embraces a “predatory, amoral, and godless universe,” the modernists are, by and large, less willing to embrace chance and disorder as aspects of fiction (or, at least, with the same playfulness as the Postmodernists).  Of course, Modernism is best seen in juxtaposition to Postmodernism, as exemplified by The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish

            The Postmodernists embrace chance more than the Modernists.  The major developments in Half-Lives result almost exclusively from the actions and ambitions of the characters; chance plays little part in what they do and how they fare. Not so in Cavendish, where the narrator has a chance to meet his old love due to staffing problems for his train to Hull (162), he signs the custody papers at Aurora house because he accidentally got high in a bathroom near a train station (170), and his escape is hampered by an unpredictable medical emergency (181).  Cavendish takes these events as they come, with the playfulness one would expect from a Postmodernist.

            One distinction frequently made between modernist and postmodernist literature is the latter’s use of references to and reliance on popular and consumer culture.  In the first half of Half-Lives, there’s a reference to Alfred Hitchcock.  In the first three pages of Cavendish, we see “Prostitute Barbie,” an “Ingersoll Solar” watch, “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Penguin Biscuits,” “Ground Control to Major Tom,”  “Time’s Arrow” (popularized in Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), “John Sandoe’s of Chelsea,” and a quote from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (145-7).  While both Half-Lives and Cavendish include details like references to historical events (e.g. the bombing of Hiroshima, the Watergate scandal), Cavendish deals heavily in popular culture, a trait seen in many other Postmodern works (e.g. the paintings of Andy Warhol, the Cat in the Hat’s bid for the presidency in Coover’s A Political Fable, etc.).

            Metafiction is another tool popular amongst Postmodernists.  Within the first page of Cavendish, the narrator directly addresses the reader ( “should you inherit one, dear Reader, sell it, don’t live in it.”) and acknowledges his role in the story (“Tim Cavendish the Disgusted Citizen exclaimed to the offenders…”) (145). That is not to say that there is no self-awareness in Half-Lives.  The very name “Half-Lives” references the structure of Cloud Atlas, in which we get one half of the story now, and the other half later on.  The name “Luisa Rey,” as homage to The Bridge of San Luis Rey, also addresses Cloud Atlas as a whole.  But Cavendish, and the Postmodernists in general, utilize self-awareness, both of form and of the inherent falsity of fiction, to a greater degree than the Modernists.

            Like metafiction, irony and sarcasm are certainly prevalent in the Modernist literature, but these tools are employed with more gusto in Postmodernist works.  It’s important to note the frequency of florid language in Cavendish.  Even the title of the section, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, is rife with ironic embellishment.   The phrase “ghastly ordeal” is an example of the faux eloquence throughout this section.  For example, Cavendish states:

            “I fought with all my might, but my sphincter was no longer my own and a cannonade
             fired off. Amusement or condescension I could have borne, but my tormentors’ pity
             signified my abject defeat” (155).
            This type of prose, which appears frequently throughout this section, would seem at home in the 19th century (or in Letters), but in the context of the present (as Cavendish is), it is ironic.  To see how this relates to Postmodernism, we need look no further than The Literature of Exhaustion, John Barth’s famous essay on Postmodernism:

            “[I]f Beethoven’s Sixth were composed today, it would be an embarrassment; but clearly
              it wouldn’t be, necessarily, if done with ironic intent by a composer quite aware of where
             we’ve been and where we are.”

            The writing style in Cavendish is fraught with outdated language, “done with ironic intent.”  And with Cavendish, we are brought up to the present. 

            The fifth section, An Orison of Sonmi~451, takes place in the future, and is a recorded interview, or “orison,” with a Fabricant (an enslaved human clone).  The previous sections represent literary movements up to the present, so what does Orison say about the future?

            Cloud Atlas focuses on progress and regression and the cyclical nature of history.  This extends to its coverage of literary history as well.  An orison, we later discover, is a holographic audio/visual recording.  Orison, therefore, is the first section not originally recorded in writing.  Furthermore, Orison is the first case in which the protagonist (the term narrator is not accurate in this case, as although Sonmi~451 provides much of the text for this section, the archivist interviewing her is no less a narrator than she is.  It could be said that this section has no narrator, but is itself an objective recording of an interview, much like the orison) receives the story of the previous section in a non-written form.  Sonmi~451 receives the film adaptation of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.  The name Sonmi~451 is likely a reference to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Whereas Bradbury’s novel focuses on the death of reading and literature, Orison is a step towards a regression to oral storytelling as the predominant form of literature, as evidenced by how Cavendish was received in Orison and  in the final section, Sloosha’s Crossin’ An’ Ev’rythin’ After.

            In Sloosha, the narrator, Zachry, is an old man recounting a story from his childhood.   While other sections have utilized idiosyncratic or otherwise nonstandard spelling (Pacific Diary replaced all ‘and’s with ‘&’s; Letters abbreviated ‘very’ as ‘v.’; Orison spelled words beginning with ‘ex’ with just an ‘x’), this is the first written in dialect:  “Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin’, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what the fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me…” (239).  Oral storytelling would, of course, be told in the accent of the storyteller.

            Oral storytelling, as the oldest form of storytelling and predecessor of literature, is a fitting place for the novel’s storylines to not only build to, as in the first half of the novel, but grow from, as in the second half of the novel.  Cloud Atlas is about, among other themes, progression and regression.  Oral storytelling is the root from which all literature has progressed.  Should the written word regress it is oral storytelling that would become, once again, the dominant mode of fiction.

Works cited:  

Barth, John. The Literature of Exhaustion Web.
Dumas, Alexandre. The Three Musketeers. 1844. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004. Print.
Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

            Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) was born in Madison, Wisconsin but grew up in California, first in Ojai then, after spending a couple years in China, Berkeley.  He received a B.A. from Yale in 1920 and a Master’s degree in French from Princeton in 1926, at which time he began a lifelong career as a teacher and a writer, publishing his first novel, The Cabala in 1926.  He published his second and most famous novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey the following year, earning him the first of three Pulitzer Prizes (the other two were for his plays Our Town (1938) and The Skin of Our Teeth (1942)). 

            Wilder served as an information officer in World War Two, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the air force.  He never married.  Although he kept his personal life to himself, it is now known that Wilder was gay and carried out an affair with Samuel Steward (a writer and professor who later became the official tattoo artist for the Hell’s Angels).  Wilder continued writing into his old age, publishing his last novel, Theophilus North, in 1973, two years before his died peacefully in his sleep in 1975.

So what's this book about?
            The first section of The Bridge of San Luis Rey starts with the collapse of a rope bridge in eighteenth century Peru, a disaster causing five people to fall to their death.  The accident is witnessed by a monk who is determined to figure out what led these people to be on the bridge in an attempt to try to understand god’s plan.  The second, third, and fourth sections show the interconnected and distinct lives of the five victims and their respective roles in the city of Lima.  The final section recounts the consequences of the monk’s research.

       “The result of all this diligence was an enormous book, which as we shall see later, was
        publicly burned on a beautiful Spring morning in  the great square.  But there was a secret
        copy and after a great many years and without much notice it found  its way to the library of
        the University of San Marco.  There it lies between two great wooden covers collecting dust
        in a cupboard.  It deals with on after another of the victims of the accident, cataloguing
        thousands of little facts and anecdotes and testimonies, and concluding with a dignified
        passage describing why God had settled upon that person and upon that day for His
        demonstration of wisdom.  Yet for all his diligence Brother Juniper never knew the central
        passion of Doña María’s life; nor of Uncle Pio’s, not even of Esteban’s.  And I, who claim to
        know so much more, isn’t it possible that even I have missed the spring within the spring?”

            The prose itself is wonderful, and the story is structured beautifully.  Everything ties together in a way that is cathartic but leaves you with the unanswerable questions: Fate or Chance?  Does order exist or do we input order in retrospect?  This novel is both philosophically and aesthetically beautiful.

Why was it so popular?
            Questions like the ones posed in The Bridge of San Luis Rey are eternal, but it’s easy to see how, in the socially tumultuous period following the largest war the world had ever seen, people would be looking for answers more fervently. 

            Intense critical acclaim drove the novel into the spotlight.  I cannot help but speculate that the undaunting length of the novel (my copy is only 123 pages) worked to its advantage. 

This one sounds familiar...
            The Bridge of San Luis Rey is the first novel on my list that has remained popular to this day.  It’s frequently assigned as required reading in schools and Wilder’s play, Our Town, is still performed regulalry by professional, amateur, and school theater groups.

            Since its publication, The Bridge of San Luis Rey has appeared on TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 best novels since 1923 and placed as number 37 on Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the 20thcentury.  It’s also had three film adaptation, in 1929, 1944, and a poorly received 2004 version, starring Kathy Bates, Harvey Keitel, and Robert DeNiro.

The story of five actors connected by a box office disaster.

Should I read it?
            Yes.  As I said earlier, the novel is both aesthetically and philosophically beautiful.  The story and characters are layered and the prose is strong.  Read this book.

Also published in 1927:  

Bertolt Brecht - The Threepenny Opera
Aldous Huxley - Point Counter Point
D. H. Lawrence - Lady Chatterley's Lover
Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on the Western Front


Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. 1927. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998. Print.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Great Books of the Western World

There is perhaps no book series as well known or esteemed as Encyclopedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World.  Covering a history of thought from ancient Greece to the 20th century, the 60 volume series is immense.  On Amazon, the 60 volume set costs nearly $700.  Used.  But as you may have guessed, most of what appears is not under copyright and can, in fact, be downloaded for free.  So, I've done some searching and offer you the 'nearly complete' great books of the western world.

I'm only including free ebooks and for a couple I was only able to find pdfs.

Volume 1

The Great Conversation (pdf)

Note: Volume 2 & 3 are the Syntopicon, an index and guide on the ideas contained within the rest of the series.  These are not included for download.  Also, the volume numbering in the following post is based on the first edition, not the current second edition.

Volume 4

(Note: When choosing translations, I've favored verse over prose)

The Iliad
The Odyssey

Volume 5

(first four download as one book)
The Suppliant Maidens
The Persians
Seven Against Thebes
Prometheus Bound
The Oresteia:
    The Euminides

(All download as one book)
The Oedipus Cycle (Oedipus the King/ Oedipus at Colonus/ Antigone)
Ajax (in link titled 'Aias')
The Trachiniae (in link titled 'The Trachinian Maidens')


The Suppliants
Trojan Women
Heracles Mad
Phoenician Women
Iphigeneia in Tauris
Iphigeneia at Aulis

(What follows is the order the plays are set forth in the Great Books)
The Acharnians
The Knights
The Clouds
The Wasps
The Birds

The Frogs

Downloadable in two volumes (Volume 1 and Volume 2)

Volume 6


The History


History of the Peloponnesian War

Volume 7


Volume 8


Minor Biological Works (I do not know what this would include)

Volume 9



On the Sphere and Cylinder
Measurement of a Circle
On Conoids and Spheroids
On Spirals
On the Equilibrium of Planes
On the Sand Reckoner
The Quadrature of the Parabola
On Floating Bodies
Book of Lemmas
(All the above in one fascimile)
The Method Treating of Mechanical Problems

Apollonius of Perga-
(Note:  On Conic Sections does not appear in the second edition)
On Conic Sections (facsimile)

Nicomachus of Gerasa

Introduction to Arithmetic (facsimile)

Volume 12


On the Nature of Things


The Discourses

Marcus Aurelius-

The Meditations

Volume 13



Volume 14


The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

Volume 15

P. Cornelius Tacitus-

The Annals
The Histories

Volume 16


The Almagest

NOTE:  There are no English translations of The Almagest that are out of copyright.

Nicolaus Copernicus-

On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres (pdf)

Johannes Kepler-

NOTE:  I was unable to find any free English translations of either Kepler piece;

Epitome of Copernican Astronomy (book IV and V)
The Harmonies of the World (Book 5)

Volume 17


The Six Enneads

Volume 18

Augustine of Hippo-

The Confessions
The City of God (Volume 1 and Volume 2 facsimiles)
On Christian Doctrine (facsimile)

Volume 19 & 20

(NOTE: In the Great Books, vol. 19 contains the first part of summa theologica and selections from the second.  Volume 20 contains selections from the second and third.  I do not know which selections were made, so I have included all of all three parts.

Thomas Aquinas-

Summa Theologica

Part 1
First half of Part 2
Second half of Part 2
Part 3

2nd edition:

John Calvin-

Institutes on the Christian Religion

Volume 21

Dante Alighieri-

The Divine Comedy:


Volume 22

Geoffrey Chaucer-

(NOTE: The following links contain the original Middle English versions of the works.  I did not see any more recent translations of Troilus and Criseyde.  For The Canterbury Tales, you can find a couple other, more accessible versions here.)

Troilus and Criseyde
The Canterbury Tales

Volume 23

Niccolò Machiavelli-

The Prince

Thomas Hobbes-


2nd edition


The Praise of Folly

Volume 24

François Rabelais-

Gargantua and Pantagruel

Volume 25

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne-

Volume 26

William Shakespeare-

Volume 27

William Shakespeare-

Volume 28

William Gilbert-

Galileo Galilei-

William Harvey-

On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals
On the Circulation of Blood
On the Generation of Animals
(all the above are in this one fascimile)

Volume 29

Miguel de Cervantes-

Volume 30

Sir Francis Bacon-

Volume 31

René Descartes-

Rules for the Direction of the Mind (facsimile)
Discourse on the Method
Meditations on First Philosophy (facsimile)
Objections Against the Meditations and Replies (pdf)
The Geometry (facsimile)

Benedict de Spinoza-


2nd edition


The School for Wives
The Critique for the School for Wives
(the above two are in this facsimile)
Don Juan (facsimile)

Rean Racine-

Bérénice (facsimile)

Volume 32

John Milton-

English Minor Poems
Paradise Lost
Samson Agonistes (facsimile)

Volume 33

Blaise Pascal-

The Provincial Letters (facsimile)
Scientific and mathematical essays (NOTE:  I have no idea what this contains, as such there is nothing here)

Volume 34

Sir Isaac Newton-

Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (facsimile)

Christian Huygens-

Treatise on Light (facsimile)

2nd Edition



Denis Diderot-

Rameau's Nephew (NOTE: I was unable to find a free English translation)

Volume 35

John Locke-

A Letter Concerning Toleration
Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

George Berkeley-

The Principles of Human Knowledge

David Hume-

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Volume 36

Jonathan Swift-

Gulliver's Travels

Laurence Sterne-

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

(NOTE: Tristram Shandy does not appear in the second edition of the Great Books)

Volume 37

Henrey Fielding-

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
(NOTE: Tom Jones does not appear in the second edition of the Great Books)

Volume 38

Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu-

The Spirit of the Laws (facsimile: Volume 1 and Volume 2)

Jean Jacques Rousseau-

A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
A Discourse on Political Economy
The Social Contract
(All are included in this facsimile)

Volume 39

Adam Smith-

An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations

Volume 40 & 41

Edward Gibbon-

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
(NOTE: The above was split into two volumes of the Great Books)

Volume 42

Immanuel Kant-

Critique of Pure Reason
Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals
Critique of Practical Reason
Excerpts from The Metaphysics of Morals:
- Preface and Introduction to the Metaphysical Elements of Ethics with a note on Conscience
- General Introduction to the Metaphysic of Morals
- The Science of Right

The Critique of Judgment

Volume 43

The American State Papers-

The Declaration of Independence
The Articles of Confederation
The Constitution of the United States of America
(All are included in this facsimile)

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay-

The Federalist Papers

John Stuart Mill

On Liberty
Considerations on Representative Government

2nd Edition

Søren Kierkegaard-

Fear and Trembling

Friedrich Nietzsche-

Beyond Good and Evil

Volume 44

James Boswell-

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

2nd edition

Alexis de Tocqueville-

Democracy in America

Volume 45

Antoine Laurent Lavoisier-

Elements of Chemistry

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier-

Analytical Theory of Heat (facsimile)
(NOTE: This does not appear in the second edition of the Great Books)

Michael Faraday-

Experimental Researches in Electricity (Volume 1 and facsimiles of Volume 2 and Volume 3)

2nd edition

Honoré de Balzac-

Cousin Bette

Volume 46

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel-

The Philosophy of Right (facsimile)
The Philosophy of History (facsimile)

2nd edition

Jane Austen-


George Eliot-


Volume 47

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe-


2nd edition

Charles Dickens-

Little Dorrit

Volume 48

Herman Melville-

Moby Dick; or, The Whale

2nd edition

Mark Twain-

Huckleberry Finn

Volume 49

Charles Darwin-

The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection
The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

Volume 50

Karl Marx-

Capital (facsimile)

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels-

Manifesto of the Communist Party

Volume 51

Count Leo Tolstoy-

War and Peace

Volume 52

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky-

The Brothers Karamazov

2nd edition

Henrik Ibsen-

A Doll's House
The Wild Duck
Hedda Gabler
The Master Builder

Volume 53

William James-

The Principles of Psychology

Volume 54

Sigmund Freud-

(NOTE: I was unable to find many of these.  If there is no link, I was unable to find it)
The Origin and Development of Psycho-Analysis (facsimile)
Selected Papers on Hysteria (facsimile)
The Sexual Enlightenment of Children
The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic Theory
Observations on "Wild" Psycho-Analysis
The Interpretation of Dreams
On Narcissism
Instincts and Their Vicissitudes
The Unconscious
A General Introduction to Psycho-Analysis
Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
The Ego and the Id
Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety
Thoughts for the Times on War and Death
Civilization and Its Discontents (pdf)
New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis

(NOTE:  Volumes 55-60 were added as part of the second edition of the Great Books)

Volume 55

William James-


Henri Bergson-

An Introduction to Metaphysics (facsimile)

John Dewey-

Experience and Education (Not in public domain)

Alfred Whitehead-

Science and the Modern World (Not in public domain)

Bertrand Russell-

The Problems of Philosophy

Martin Heidegger-

What is Metaphysics (Not in public domain)

Ludwig Wittgenstein-

Philosophical Investigations (Not in public domain)

Karl Barth-

The Word of God and the Word of Man (Not in public domain)

Volume 57

Henri Poincaré-

Science and Hypothesis

Max Planck-

Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (Not in public domain)

Alfred North Whitehead-

An Introduction to Mathematics

Albert Einstein-

Relativity: The Special and the General Theory

Arthur Eddington-

The Expanding Universe (Not in public domain)

Niels Bohr-

Selections from Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (facsimile)
(NOTE: I don't know what selections were made from Atomic Theory so you get the whole thing)
Discussion with Einstein on Epistemology (Not in public domain)

G. H. Hardy-

A Mathematician's Apology (Not in public domain)

Werner Heisenberg-

Physics and Philosophy (Not in public domain)

Erwin Schrödinger-

What Is Life? (pdf)

Theodosius Dobzhansky-

Genetics and the Origin of Species (Not in public domain)

C. H. Waddington-

The Nature of Life (Not in public domain)

Volume 57

Thorstein Veblen-

The Theory of the Leisure Class

R. H. Tawney-

The Acquisitive Society

John Maynard Keynes-

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

Volume 58

Sir James George Frazer-

Selections from The Golden Bough 
(NOTE: I don't know what selections were made, so you get the whole thing.)

Max Weber-

Selections from Essays in Sociology (facsimile)
(NOTE: I don't know what selections were made, so you get the whole thing.)

Johan Huizinga-

The Autumn of the Middle Ages (facsimile)

Claude Lévi-Strauss-

Selections from Structural Anthropology (Not in public domain)


According to Australian copyright law, any works published by authors who died prior to 1955 are in the public domain in Australia.  As such, if you aren't Australian and download certain of the following books, you could be guilty of (drumroll) copyright infringement.  So I'm just going to assume that you are all upstanding citizens who would never dare download anything in a manner that might constitute (dramatic music) copyright infringement!

Volume 59

Henry James-

The Beast in the Jungle

George Bernard Shaw-

Saint Joan (Not in public domain)

Joseph Conrad-

Heart of Darkness

Anton Chekov-

Uncle Vanya

Luigi Pirandello-

Six Characters in Search of an Author

Marcel Proust-

Remembrance of Things Past: "Swann in Love"
(NOTE: To the best I've been able to determine, "Swann in Love" is a section in the first volume of In Search of Lost Time)

Willa Cather-

A Lost Lady

Thomas Mann-

Death in Venice (Not in public domain)

James Joyce-

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Volume 60

Virginia Woolf-

To the Lighthouse

Franz Kafka-

The Metamorphosis

D. H. Lawrence-

The Prussian Officer

T. S. Eliot-

The Waste Land

Eugene O'Neill-

Mourning Becomes Electra

F. Scott Fitzgerald-

The Great Gatsby

William Faulkner-

A Rose for Emily (Not in public domain)

Bertolt Brecht-

Mother Courage and Her Children (Not in public domain)

Ernest Hemingway-

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber (Not in public domain)

George Orwell-

Animal Farm

Samuel Beckett-

Waiting for Godot (Not in public domain)

Monday, May 20, 2013

1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

Harry Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) appears twice on this list, the first time in 1921 for his novel MainStreet.  Between the publication of Main Street and Elmer Gantry, Lewis published his two of his seminal works, Babbit (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925).  In 1930, Lewis became the first American author to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

So what's this book about?
Elmer Gantry is a satirical attack on religious institutions of the early 1900’s. (In the name of journalistic integrity, I should point out that I am not religious but I will try to avoid putting any such bias in this review) The eponymous Elmer Gantry is a narcissistic, drunk, violent, womanizing college student who is convinced to join the church and over the course of the next twenty years, becomes the most famous preacher in the nation.  While publicly a figure of righteousness and one of the most vocal detractors of anything sinful, Gantry’s private life and motivations are incredibly self-serving and hypocritical.  He preaches because it gives him power over people.

            Elmer Gantry is a character you love to hate.  His character exemplifies the state of religious institutions of the time.  Uncoincidentally, the Gantry, after being kicked out of the seminary, becomes a salesman.  Throughout the novel, the ability to earn money for the church (and himself) becomes first and foremost of Gantry’s concerns.  Likewise, the religious organizations (Gantry starts as a Baptist, becomes an Evangelical, and later a Methodist) feel the same way.  Throughout the story, the preachers that honestly believe and live by the bible never get to preach anywhere above small towns or poor districts in the cities.  The preachers who are a help to their community are also unable to get assigned to a large church and are frequently non-believers.

            Strangely enough, Gantry believes (or at least believes that he believes) in the bible. This is important.  One of the beliefs that Gantry and the other preachers have to affirm time and again throughout the novel is that salvation is guaranteed through faith, not good works.  Elmer Gantry does bad things all the time but has faith.  

Why was it so popular?
           From the New York Times, April 13, 1927:
            “Boston bans sale of ‘Elmer Gantry’: Will prosecute anyone who sells Lewis novel under law against ‘indecent and obscene’ books.”

            The controversy over Elmer Gantry was widespread.  Preachers routinely and vehemently denounced the book.  The then-famous evangelist Billy Sunday shouted that he “could have socked Mr. Lewis so hard there would have been nothing left for the devil to leap on.”  Sunday may have had good reason to be angry, because the similarities between the then famous preacher and Gantry were many. 

            Sunday was one of two people who were in particular lampooned in Elmer Gantry.  The other was Aimee Semple McPherson who appears in the novel as the revivalist Sharon Falconer.  Like Falconer, McPherson led a series of tent-revivals across the nation, incorporating myriad forms of entertainment into her meetings.  Like Falconer, she also claimed to be a faith-healer.  Falconer, like McPherson, built her own large church.  Whereas Falconer’s burnt down, McPherson’s still stands and is the headquarters of an eight million member international Christian denomination. 

Why haven't I heard of it?
            After the initial controversy died down, I can’t imagine that Elmer Gantry would continue to revel in mainstream appeal.  While other bestselling novels on the list (The Inside of the Cup, for example) challenge religious convention, they conclude by praising the religion and its practitioners, even if criticizing certain practices.  From what I’ve seen so far, for a book to remain popular, it has to do at least one of a few things: a) get taught in schools (e.g. The Grapes of Wrath)  b)have an author that has remained famous (e.g. Dharma Bums)   c) have a popular film adaptation (e.g. The Godfather) d) garner a cult following (The Lord of the Rings, before the movies) or e) become regarded as ‘a classic’ (e.g. Absalom, Absalom).  While Elmer Gantry had a fairly popular film adaptation in 1960, the novel is far too controversial to get taught in schools, Lewis has himself declined in popularity, and there does not seem to be a strong community centered around Lewis’s works.  However, with certain changes in popular ideology, I would not be surprised if Elmer Gantry didn’t have a bit of a revival in the coming years.  

Should I read it?
            Yes.  Whatever your opinions, politically or religiously, Elmer Gantry provides a look at corruption and mass deception that is both incredible and down-to-earth.

Also published in 1927:  
Willa Cather - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Herman Hesse - Steppenwolf
Marcel Proust - In Search of Lost Time (final volume)
Upton Sinclair - Oil!
Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse


Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry. 1927. New York: Dell Publishing Co. 1960.
Schorer, Mark. Sinclair Lewis: An American Life. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1961. Print.

Monday, May 13, 2013

1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine


John Erskine (1879 – 1951) was born in New York City. He received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1903 and honorary doctorates from nine other universities since then, in subjects ranging from music to education. He was an English professor at Amherst College then Columbia University. He was also a concert pianist, and the first president of the Julliard School of Music. Erskine’s literature program at Columbia is widely accepted to have been the groundwork for the “Great Books” movement.

So What's this book about?
       The Private Life of Helen of Troy takes place after the events in The Iliad, with Menelaus bringing Helen back to Sparta after sparing her life at the behest of Agamemnon.  Once home, they have to deal with their daughter Hermione’s potential engagement to Orestes, their maid Adraste’s relationship with Damastor, the son of a ‘good family,’ and scandal over Helen’s flight to Troy with Paris.  Other figures from Greek mythology play a part in the story, Achilles’s son, Pyrrhus, Clytemnestra, and Telemachus all have impact on the story.

Unfortunately, it turns into a particularly slow-paced domestic drama.  One thing I noticed when reading is that a vast majority of the book is dialogue, or rather, characters aiming monologues at each other.  Most of the characters seem to exist solely so Helen can explain her philosophies to them.  And in almost every scene where Helen is absent, other characters are discussing Helen’s philosophy.  While her ideas are interesting, they are expressed in a repetitive manner that causes the story to drag.

As far as the story itself goes, it seems like a soap opera, except all the back-stabbing and evil plotting goes on off-screen, or in the case of the novel, the characters are later told about it instead of actually seeing it done. (NOTE: I am aware that this was a common method of presenting action in ancient Greek drama.  Erskine does have a good knowledge of the Greeks, but the conventions of two-thousand year-old theater do not work too well in this novel.)  The problem I had with this novel is essentially the same problem I had with Sense and Sensibility: The characters’ ideologies are well explained at the beginning of the novel, so we know exactly what they’re going to say each of the hundred times they say it.

Why was it so popular?
John Erskine had a number of non-fiction and fiction books published prior to the publication of The Private Life of Helen of Troy, so he was not a newcomer to the publishing world.  As far as what made Helen popular, the protagonist’s philosophies are contradictory to the ‘traditional values’ of the time, without being too controversial. A combination of soap-opera drama and classical setting would garner a large audience.

Why haven't I heard of it?
The philosophies put forward in the novel are no longer controversial, rather they seem in many ways pretty standard in how they regard love, responsibility, honesty, etc.  Whereas an audience that is held captive by new ideas would be enthralled, a modern audience would probably just be bored.

Should I read it?
              No.  It isn't 'bad' so much as it is uninteresting.

Published in 1926:

The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway

The Castle - Franz Kafka

Winnie the Pooh - A. A. Milne


Erskine, John. The Private Life of Helen of Troy. 1925. New York: F. Ungar Publishing      Company. 1957. Print.

Kunitz, Stanley. Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern      Literature. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company. 1942. Print.