Wodehouse Interviewed

Here’s a Boxing Day treat for you: various clips of P.G. Wodehouse speaking. Despite a 26-year-long devotion to the great man and his books (a devotion I’ve passed on to my kids), I’d never heard him talk. Here’s the man Hilaire Belloc once called “the greatest writer of English now alive.”

Hope you all have a very Merry Christmas, and will continue to enjoy it until the Epiphany.


Bonus: one of my favorite Wodehouse anecdotes:


Read More Trashy Books! For Free!

My twin literary passions are at the absolute opposite ends of the spectrum: great literature, and pulp “trash.” I have no interest in almost anything  in between.

I love the Western canon: Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Dickens, Trollope, Yeats, Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and similar hacks.

And I love vintage pulp fiction and comics: Doc Savage, The Shadow, Doyle, Burroughs, Silver Age DC, and similar masterworks of low art.

Your middlebrow modern novelists? Can’t stand them.

Don DeLillo? I’d rather have dental work.

Cormac McCarthy? Unreadable. Use a friggin’ comma, pal. They’re free.

As for modern pop fiction, Twilight may not be as painful to read as T. Coraghessan Boyle, but meyerpires are insipid imitations of Stoker, LeFanu, Sturgeon, and King. Why bother?

I love the craft of good writing, but I also love the raw energy and invention of the pulp writers. These guys could turn out a novel in less than a week. Walter B. Gibson or Lester Dent could do 10,000 pretty good words a day. Plus commas! 

And the stories smoked. Your average Doc Savage novel moves with a giddy energy and sense of invention that is just gone from modern fiction.

And now, thanks to Open Culture, I’ve learned about something wonderful. I don’t know how I missed it.

It’s called The Pulp Magazines Project and it houses full copies of over two hundred individual issues of sixty three different titles from the United States, England, and Australia, including Black Mask, All-Story, Argosy, Adventure, Sea Stories, Ginger Stories, Amazing Stories, and so on.

This diversity is part of its charm: it’s not just limited to science-fiction or horror or crime, but to the whole range of pulp fiction, including romance, sports, wilderness, Americana, and war stories

The issues have have clear, beautiful scans and are readable in a flip-book format for computers or as downloadable PDFs, for mobile devices. The entire site is iPad-friendly.

The scans include the ads, which are essential for the experience.

Pulp magazines were what people did for entertainment before TV and even radio, and writers from Dickens to Lovecraft to Fitzgerald to Jack London to Hammett published in this cheap format. These were stories for the average guy and gal, and as such they are a priceless window into the past, as well as far more entertaining than almost anything on TV right now.

Check ’em out! 

UPDATE: Sean Dailey adds a word from GKC:

“The vast mass of humanity, with their vast mass of idle books and idle words, have never doubted and never will doubt that courage is splendid, that fidelity is noble, that distressed ladies should be rescued, and vanquished enemies spared…. The average man or boy writes daily in these great gaudy diaries of his soul, which we call Penny Dreadfuls, a plainer and better gospel than any of those iridescent ethical paradoxes that the fashionable change as often as their bonnets…. The poor–the slaves who really stoop under the burden of life– have often been mad, scatter-brained, and cruel, but never hopeless. That is a class privilege, like cigars. Their drivelling literature will always be a “blood and thunder” literature, as simple as the thunder of heaven and the blood of men.” –G.K. Chesterton, “A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls”

Amazon MatchBook: Get Kindle Versions of Your Purchases

Remember when Amazon AutoRip went live and almost every hard-media CD you’d ever bought from Amazon (even those you’d bought as gifts for others) was automatically available as an MP3 download or cloud streaming file? For free?

That was great.

Amazon MatchBook does something similar for books and Kindle. Books you’ve bought in hard copy are available now for Kindle.

Unlike Autorip, MatchBook is not necessarily free, nor is it, at this point, all that comprehensive.

First, the price: Kindle versions of prior purchases are $3, $2, $1, or free, depending upon the book. Most of  mine were listed at $3. It also works for new purchases.

Of the many books I’ve bought going back to 2004, only 17 are now available. There are some interesting items in there, and I might Kindleize (it’s a word because I say it’s a word) one or two. As more become available, it will be more attractive, but giving free or low-price e-versions away with hard copies is a great value.

This is something you might want to check on every few months, since the list of supported titles may grow.

Log into your account and see what’s available.

Part of my Kindle MatchBook list: hardly complete, but a nice start.

World’s Largest Shakespeare Collection Going Digital

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC is the largest Shakespeare collection in the world, and beginning next month it’s going online. The Library will be releasing scans of their collection, as well as publishing an app called The  Luminary Folger Shakespeare for accessing it all. The project eventually will make 50,000 digital images available to the public. 

The Folger collection has 82 copies (!) of the First Folio, and countless quartos and other material. The library also has about 250,000 books, the same number of playbills, more than 50,000 manuscripts (including work from the hands of John Donne, Mark Twain, and others) and a vast array other art and printed material. The library has an exhibit space, and whenever I’ve stopped in they always have some treasure on display.

BBC has a video report on the collection and the efforts to make more of it accessible online.

My own preferred digital Shakespeare is Readdle’s Shakespeare Pro, which never leaves my iPad. It includes the complete works, some audio, outlines, contextual glosses from Shakespeare’s Words, both modern and folio texts, and other treats. I’d love to see something like this for more great literature, especially for Chaucer.

Dr. Johnson’s “Prayer Before Any New Study”

Samuel Johnson’s “Prayers and Meditations” are not well known, but the new Delphi Complete Works of Samuel Johnson (Illustrated) includes a clean text, along with all of his other works and writings about Johnson by Hawthorne, Lovecraft, Chesterton, and others.

Your cost? $3.

I’ve written before about how much I love the Delphi editions for their good formatting, organization, illustrations, and supplemental materials. Check out the whole series.

Here is a prayer “Before Any New Study,” found in Johson’s prayer journal after his death:

ALMIGHTY God, in whose hands are all the powers of man, who givest understanding, and takest it away; who, as it seemeth good unto Thee, enlightenest the thoughts of the simple, and darkenest the meditations of the wise, be present with me in my studies and enquiries. Grant, O Lord, that I may not lavish away the life which Thou hast given me on useless trifles, nor waste it in vain searches after things which Thou hast hidden from me. Enable me, by thy Holy Spirit so to shun sloth and negligence, that every day may discharge part of the task which Thou hast allotted me; and so further with thy help that labour which, without thy help, must be ineffectual, that I may obtain, in all my undertakings, such success as will most promote thy glory, and the salvation of my own soul, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

If that didn’t work, there was always his prayer “After Time Negligently and Unprofitably Spent,” otherwise known as “Something I Have To Say Every Day”:

O LORD, in whose hands are life and death, by whose power I am sustained, and by whose mercy I am spared, look down upon me with pity. Forgive me, that I have this day neglected the duty which Thou hast assigned to it, and suffered the hours, of which I must give account, to pass away without any endeavour to accomplish thy will, or to promote my own salvation. Make me to remember, O God, that every day is thy gift, and ought to be used according to thy command. Grant me, therefore, so to repent of my negligence, that I may obtain mercy from Thee, and pass the time which thou shalt yet allow me, in diligent performance of thy commands, through Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Best Writing Advice Ever

Rest in peace, Dutch.

Some of his other tips:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Barbara Mertz (aka Barbara Michaels, Elizabeth Peters) Passes Away

The great author Dr. Barabara Mertz died this morning in her Maryland home. She was 85.

Barbara was an Egyptologist by training (and wrote two good books on the subject), but found her fame as a writer of best-selling thrillers (under the name of Barbara Michaels) and mysteries (as Elizabeth Peters).

If you’re counting, that’s three writing careers under three names, and she aced all three.

I interviewed Barbara a couple times for various publications, and she was terrific: sharp, funny, outspoken, and always entertaining. We used to talk now and then when I was still writing about genre fiction and attending cons. Like most writers, she was widely read, and I remember chats about Plato (she told me that the title for “The Dark on the Other Side” was prompted by a thought about the allegory of the cave: “What’s beyond the light that casts the shadows?”) and other writers (she was a loyal friend and a great supporter of upcoming writers) and Egypt. She was a lot of fun and a terrifically talented lady.

You can read some more about her here.

One of our interviews can be found in The Fine Art of Murder.

Jane Austen to Replace Darwin on the Ten-Pound Note UPDATE


Here it is: 

My late, beloved cousin, friend, and mentor J. David Grey (Austen expert and co-founder of the Jane Austen Society) is doing a victory lap in heaven.

I’m so pleased I’m not even going to take a poke at Richard Dawkins, except to say the world needs more Jane Austens than Charles Darwins.

UPDATE: One of my cousins suggested America should do the same.

I’d nominate Washington Irving  (America’s first truly great man of letters, and a fine and entertaining writer) to replace borderline psychopath Andrew Jackson on the $20.

Irving wasn’t crazy (coughPoecough) or drunk (I’m looking at you, every great writer of the 20th century). The only other possibilities I can think of are Hawthorne, Melville, or Louisa May Alcott.

Who’s with me? We have nothing to lose except … actually, we will completely and inevitably lose, but maybe someone will read the Sketch-Book, and that’s a good thing.

The Most Important Book I Ever Read

I wish I could say it was something grand that I can look back upon with pride: maybe the Bible, or Hamlet, or In Our Time, or the Divine Comedy, or Gatsby, or The Confessions, or Lord of the Rings, or the tales of Poe and Doyle and Lovecraft. But although I would cite all of them as my favorites and each is important to me, I’ve finally come to terms with a simple fact: the most important book I ever read is this:

And, yes, I read it. All of it, sometime between the ages of 13 and 15. There’s no denying that it’s kind of a shabby replacement for actual reading, but the simple fact is this: the Fifteenth Edition of Barlett’s Familiar Quotations got me at the right time and made me fall in love with words and literature and the well-turned phrase. It explains my early affection for aphoristic writers like Wilde and Bierce, and my current affection for Lewis and Chesterton.

It also did what such a book should do: it set me off exploring the world of writing, and I never stopped.

Some quotes, cut loose from their context, were mysteriously evocative in a way that made me want to know more. For example, the phrase “I’ll speak in a monstrous little voice,” in the Shakespeare section, just seemed strange, but when I sought out its placement, I was introduced not to any kind of real monster, but to a comical figure named Bottom. Bartlett’s was the very first time I encountered the Greek poets, playwrights and philosophers; Chaucer; Matthew Arnold; Ben Jonson; the Romantic and metaphysical poets; and the early 20th century American authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Wolfe.

It introduced me to writers I’d never encountered, and sent me chasing after the complete work. (To this day, I have a madness for “complete editions” of authors, which is served well by Kindle.) Wilde’s wit, Whitman’s chant, the effortless beauty of Yeats, the muscular prose-poetry of passages of Melville, and the majestic cadences of Lincoln: a few pages of cut diamonds hinting at a vast mine just waiting to be excavated. Barlett’s was a spark, and as Dante wrote, “A great flame follows a little spark” (page 142, quote #10).

Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Dilys Winn’s Murder Ink books, and H.P. Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature served a similar purpose: they introduced me to new writers, and I began a habit that never really left me of haunting used bookstores. It wasn’t enough to learn that Lovecraft thought M.R. James wrote a ripping good ghost story: I had to find every M.R. James book I could lay hands upon: not always an easy task in early 1980s suburbia.

Sometimes a book isn’t great in and of itself. It’s great because it sends you searching for true greatness.

Bartlett’s was still pretty strong in the 15th edition, but the slide had already begun under the editorship of Emily Morison Beck. Janis Joplin groaning “Down on me, down on me / Looks like everybody in this whole round world / Is down me” really doesn’t rise to the level of Wordsworth (“That best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / of kindness and of love”) or Wilde (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”).

Things continued to get worse under editor Justin Kaplan, who combined the worst traits of a provincial ideologue (he admitted to loathing Ronald Reagan and deliberately mishandled the Reagan section to make him look foolish) and tin-eared trend chaser (the pop-culture references he included are of disputable durability). Exchanging the sublime Alexander Pope for Mick Jagger is no one’s idea of an improvement.

Bartlett’s quotes were supposed to be for the ages, not the moment. A well-read populace would have been able to summon certain phrases and lines from memory. Any schoolchild up until 30-odd years ago would have been able to tell you who wrote “This is the forest primeval” or “These are the times that try men’s souls.” They knew them because they are words that endured, and they endured because they evoke greatness and resonate with deep meaning. “I can’t get no satisfaction” is a fine thing to hum along to in the car, but it doesn’t really hint at hidden depths, does it?

I’d forgotten the impact of Bartlett’s on my reading habits until the Bartlett Familiar Quotations app landed on my iPhone. It’s slightly crashy, but overall it’s a effective port of the 18th edition. Since that book lists for $50, the app lists for $4, and the app appears to be the complete contents of the full edition (both editions boast “20,000 quotes”), that’s a pretty good deal.

The app opens on a random quote of the day, and you can save favorites into various folders. The text is fully searchable by author, topic, publication, or word, but it would benefit from more robust search features, including a date search and chronological index. The social sharing feature is quite nice: you can save out a quote as an image, or even create a quote with a custom background image for instant literary memes, like this:

All of these items are fully integrated with social sharing features, which sometimes work, and sometimes don’t. In keeping with the new editions of Bartlett’s, there’s still pointless trend chasing. I like Harry Potter as well as the next person who’s not Michael O’Brien, but does this really stand with the immortals?

Overall, however, it’s hard to gripe. If later editions are weaker than the series was in its golden age, there’s still enough of the Bartlett goodness undergirding the whole operation to make it worth your four bucks.

Bartlett’s is a book you need to find at the right age. You consume it and it powers your journey to greater things. I like having it to hand so I can flip through for some quick inspiration, hunt down a citation, or just push out a quick quote for Twitter or Facebook. It doesn’t have the particular influence that The Confessions, or Shakespeare, or Look Homeward, Angel, or even the early novels of Stephen King had on me. Those influence run deep and change the way I look at the world and, as a writer, approach my work.

Bartlett’s is more like a stone skipping across the surface. It shows you some beautiful ripples, and hints and the wonderful depths below, mysterious and waiting to be explored.