Monday Miscellany

Cover: The Golden Thread

Book review: “The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing,” by Ewan Clayton

Anyone who loves books will be interested in this book, which tells the story of typography:

Writing matters, says Ewan Clayton, calligrapher, former monk, design and media professor and visual consultant to Xerox in Palo Alto, Calif., the folks who made the first networked home computer. Not just who cut the typeface, not just the letters and words. But the manner in which over the millennia we’ve inscribed, carved, painted, brushed, printed and now text them. Writing tells us how we inhabit our world, how we move through it and interact with each other.

Bring the literary giants of the great war to life

Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University’s poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible

As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war approaches, many texts—including a few novels, “memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle”—are entering the public domain and becoming freely available.

The cold equations of ethics

On the University of Oxford blog Practical Ethics, Anders Sandberg considers an article by science fiction author Cory Doctorow about a couple of stories that feature ethical dilemmas:

By imposing the right boundary conditions an author can make even extreme behaviour moral. This makes for good stories, but they are not teaching us how to think well about the future since they depend on a contrived situation. Maybe such contrived situations could occur, but real situations have far less coherent contexts and hence make the moral issues far more non-trivial. Since well written stories are salient and memorable, we often use them as examples when reasoning about the real world… despite the risk of their conclusions being arbitrarily prescribed.

My own favourite example of this kind of induction of conclusions is Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is often used as an argument that cognitive enhancement will not be good for people. However, the reason the protagonist suffers is that he and the world is written that way. While it makes for a good story it doesn’t help us think much about the nature of intelligence enhancement despite apparently giving us an argument.

This suggests that writers trying to be moral should do their best to refrain from overly constraining their fictional worlds in order to tell stories that actually help us think about acting morally in the real world.

Sandberg’s point that an overly contrived story that can lead to only one solution does not really help us learn to think ethically is an important one, since it’s easy to be taken in by such a literary work.

And be sure to look at Doctorow’s article, which Sandberg links to in his introduction.

10 Authors from Georgia You Should Read Now

Paste Magazine introduces its 50 States Project with a list of “10 contemporary authors from Georgia who are contributing to the evolving landscape of Southern literature.”

I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of any of these authors. It’s time to expand my reading list.

What’s It Like Reading ‘Peyton Place’ Today?

This week, Thomas Mallon and Anna Holmes discuss what it’s like reading “Peyton Place” today, 50 years after the death of its author, Grace Metalious.

Opposite views of what this historic salient novel, whose title has become part of the common parlance, offers today’s readers.

Happy Birthday, Truman Capote

In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In honor of Truman Capote‘s birthday, today’s featured review is In Cold Blood, the book that changed writing forever.

Featured Review: “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold

Happy birthday, Alice Sebold!

In honor of the day, here’s a review of her famous novel, The Lovely Bones.

The Lovely Bones

Featured Review: “Angela’s Ashes”

In honor of Frank McCourt’s birthday, today’s featured review is Angela’s Ashes.


Featured Review: “Disturbances in the Field”

Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.Disturbances in the Field

Featured Review: “The Black Echo”

Featured Review: The Black Echo

In honor of Michael Connelly’s birthday, here’s a review of The Black Echo, that book that introduces Connelly’s franchise series character LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

Featured Review: “Eat, Pray, Love”

Eat, Pray, LoveFeatured Review: Eat, Pray, Love

Happy birthday, Elizabeth Gilbert.


Featured Review: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdToday’s featured review is To Kill a Mockingbird, published on this date in 1960.


Featured Review: “Room” by Emma Donoghue

Featured Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

Cover: RoomIn a writer’s group I participate in someone recently asked for recommendations of novels to look at as examples in creating the voice of a child narrator.

I’ve always been interested in books with child narrators because I think one of the hardest jobs writers can set for themselves is the creation of a child’s voice. The successful portrayal of a child narrator involves not only age-appropriate vocabulary and sentence structure, but also a way of looking at the world that fits the child’s age.

Emma Donoghue does a remarkable job with 5-year-old Jack in the novel Room. When the book first came out, some critics said that Jack sounds much older than 5. They’re right: Jack doesn’t sound like a typical 5-year old.

But that’s because Jack isn’t a typical 5-year-old. He’s a child who has been confined to a single room for his entire life. The only person he’s had contact with is his mother, who has spent every moment of Jack’s 5 years looking out for him, trying to provide him as much stimulation as possible within their restricted environment. Jack has never talked to other children, only to his mother. I would have found it strange if Jack did sound like a typical 5-year-old.

Room is one of the best examples I know of how to create a convincing child narrator.

If you have a favorite novel narrated by a child, please let us know in the comment section.

‘America’s Final Beginning’ a clumsy, preachy novel written by a beginner

‘America’s Final Beginning’ a clumsy, preachy novel written by a beginner.

I offer this review as a good definition of what is commonly known as a “program novel” or a “propaganda novel”: a novel that is written to portray a message but that forgets the first requirement of a novel is to tell a good story and tell it well.