Monday, June 22, 2009

Curioser and Curioser

It seemed like the book Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland would be right up my alley. From what I had read about it, I was imagining all sorts of unusual, possibly scandalous, facts about famous authors and their works. In fact, I'm not sure what the author was trying to accomplish. It seems as if there were a few good ideas at the start, but there was not really enough material to make a book so a great deal of filler was added.

The author states in the introduction that this book is modeled on the 1791 book The Curiosities of Literature by Isaac D'Israeli. Perhaps if I had had the pleasure of reading that earlier work, this current one would have made more sense. As it was, I had to muddle through the strange and sometimes incomprehensible collection of facts that were assembled. For instance, the first chapter is called "Literary Baked Meats." The author then discusses several examples of food mentioned in books, examples of gluttony by authors, and foodstuffs that were inspired by literature. Another chapter, "Who?, Who?, Who?" includes 5 short pieces on the apparently disputed authorship of various works, followed by one short discussion about who invented the supercomputer. It's all a bit haphazard.

The thing that really "turned me agin" this book was a blatant error that I spotted rather early in the book, on page 44. The author mentions several times (one of many repetitions in the book) that he is an admirer of Charles Dickens. How then, to explain this sentence, "He was sixty-four years old, and writing (and selling) better than ever." This particular section of the book, titled "Can We Clone Dickens," deals with the death of Dickens. I knew, even without looking it up, that Charles Dickens was in his late 50s when he died. Honestly! How difficult would that have been to check? The author further engages in oddly inaccurate statements when he writes that Edgar Allan Poe was "aged thirty-nine" on his deathbed. In fact, he died a few months short of his 41st birthday -- at least this was a bit closer to the mark. Those were the ones that jumped out at me -- no doubt there were plenty more whoppers where those came from!

In addition, there are bizarre black and white drawings that introduce each chapter. They seem, for the most part, to have little to do with the information that follows, although in quite a few of the drawings it's impossible to work out what in the world is supposed to be represented.

At the end of the book is a very weird section called "Curious Connections" where 10 questions are asked which attempt to make the most absurd and illogical connections between various literary (and non-literary) works. Naturally, to take up space, the questions are repeated and then answered. For instance, one question asks what is the connection between Clint Eastwood and mass poisoner Graham Young. The answer is that Eastwood once starred in a film titled "Pale Rider" and Young was inspired by Agatha Christie's novel "The Pale Horse." Yep, if that's not obvious, I don't know what is!

A final oddity in this book is that the title page of each chapter, as well as the first page of each chapter, for some reason always start on the right-hand side of the book. This means that if the preceding chapter ended on the right-hand page, it would be followed by a blank page, then the chapter title page, then a blank page, then the start of the chapter. I counted 19 blank pages within the text of the 273 page book (and many of those pages that did have text contained only a few paragraphs).

This book could have been really, really interesting, but sadly was only frustrating. The fact of the matter is that there just wasn't enough material to make a book. That is made painfully obvious by the blank pages, repetitions, and attempts to make obscure connections. On the bright side, though, it is a very quick read!
Final Verdict for Curiosities of Literature: One Gherkin, for a good premise, but a poorly executed book


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