Should high school readers be assigned classics originally written for an adult audience?


Classic Remarks is a meme hosted at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

Here is a link to the current prompt, which includes instructions on how to participate if you have thoughts of your own to share. You are, of course, as always, welcome – encouraged, even – to leave a comment down below as I love hearing what others think. 

Also, I encountered the following article, which I understand to be from a Canadian school newspaper (in blog form, apropos of the Information Age), which seems both related and wholly different: The Lisgarwrite – Four Years of Shakespeare. I draw attention to it as (a) it was by someone currently attending school, and (b) an acknowledgement that my view cannot possibly encapsulate all perspectives on this or any subject. 

It’s difficult to answer this question from my own perspective. I consider what books are to be assigned the least of the education system’s problems. Having survived high school, by not attending as much as I could get away with, I’d summarise it as “a place to make average people slightly smarter, and smart people a lot dumber.” My ideal high school would have left me the hell alone so I could get on with actual learning. 

However, the average student is not me and, pleasing everyone being an impossibility, high school should benefit the average student. My own curriculum was quite light on classic books. There were plays – Death of a Salesman and Macbeth. We, inexplicably, watched the 1992 film version of Of Mice and Men. The books were Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

So, one classic and one contemporary. The classic, Gatsby, is one that I loathe (see here). Private Peaceful, though, is useful to consider for present purposes. It is about the First World War, its message that war is pointless and inhuman, told in the first person, and written for a young(er) audience. It is precisely the type of book a school would be expected to assign. But it is interesting because there is an almost exactly equivalent classic that could be read instead. It also is about the First World War, it too illustrates war’s pointlessness and inhumanity, it is even also written in the first person, but is “for adults”. Can you guess the one I mean? 

Of course, I’m referring to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front

Now, what are the benefits in choosing Private Peaceful over AQotWF? I can think of one – it’s “easier”. That, in truth, is not even a benefit, as I’ll discuss shortly. I will concede a further benefit: Private Peaceful is an original English text; All Quiet is a work in translation (from the German: Im westen nichts neues). Still, why not choose Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That if the original language is the issue? Anyway, I do want to stick with my initial choice. 

What are the benefits in choosing All Quiet on the Western Front over PP? Well, the inverse of the above, it’s “harder”. As Krysta points out in her post on this question (linked above) YA literature tends to spell out its message, subtext eschewed in favour of mere text. Remarque does not provide easy answers or conclusions. His brief preface reads to the work reads, in full: 

“This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.” 

That the average high school reader might find even this passage an insurmountable obstacle is not a reflection on the book or its worth, but on the endemic problems in education today hinted at above, and illustrated by Krysta again in her post. 

But there is benefit – huge benefit – in carrying out difficult tasks, in reading the “hard” books. It is only in trying difficult things that one can ever hope to achieve them. I’ve opened my copy of All Quiet at a random page (152, as it happens) and there is an underlined passage. (SPOILER: the central character and narrator, Paul, has just killed a man in close personal quarters for the first time). It reads: 

“But earlier on you were just an idea to me, a concept in my mind that called up an automatic response – it was that concept that I stabbed. It is only now that I see that you were a human being like me.” 

I do not intend to disparage Morpurgo. In fact he is a wonderful writer and I enjoy his work. But there is more depth, more to unpack, in this single passage from Remarque than in the whole of Private Peaceful

Particular to these two works, it must also be stated that Remarque’s account is necessarily more authoritative. Morpurgo did not fight in the Great War; his work is doubtless well researched, and authoritative in that sense, but as a genuine insight into what it was like to live and fight and die in those trenches, there is no more qualified source than Remarque*. 

Okay, however, this raises a different problem – what relevance does World War I have to the contemporary high school reader? And expanding on that, what relevance do the classics have? Why, indeed, should this and other “old books” be the focus of English class – history, certainly, but why English? 

And honestly, I think this is a fair question. But why distinguish between a classic and a contemporary book? Just what the hell is a classic? The book I’ve been discussing will be a hundred years old in less than a decade, is it merely a matter of age? Or, is it a matter of style, content and depth? I must argue for the latter. Therefore, there is no reason not to consider a contemporary work a classic too –  a modern classic, when it ceases to be modern, must surely be a classic, no? “Modern” ultimately just serves as a descriptor of the work’s age.

Modern classics have the benefit of being more immediately, more obviously, relevant to a modern reader (shocking, I know). From the “classics” we can discern general truths about the human condition and, often, gain valuable insights into historical life and events. But from “modern classics” we can discern general truths about the human condition and gain valuable insights about modern life and events. Which is best for the modern reader, the modern high school reader? Surely it is the latter. 

So, to answer the question. Should high school readers be assigned classics originally written for an adult audience? 

Yes, they should. There is huge benefit in reading works “intended for adults”. If students cannot grapple with these texts then schools must be taken to task. But “classics” should not be interpreted in a narrow way. It will always be difficult to find a book that appeals to all students, but a conscious effort should be made, if books must be assigned, to choose those with relevance to the modern reader but with the same scope for study as “the classics”. 

I have an entirely different ideal scenario in my mind, but it is, I fear, a pipe dream. For that reason, I will content myself with the answer I have given. So what are your thoughts on this matter? Leave a comment below, or visit the page linked above and contribute that way. 

*To be clear, there are equally qualified sources, but none “better”. 

20 Questions Book Tag – About ME

Almost two months have passed since I started writing here. Two months exactly will fall on my birthday, which Google, through my phone, has just informed me is “coming up soon!” Odd, that.

Anyway, I thought I’d introduce myself a little bit more. But, I will do so through the medium of books with this, the 20 Questions Book Tag. I found this on Lauren Corcur’s blog and she writes that she “was unable to find the originator of the tag” – so credit for the questions to her and whomever that other elusive figure might be. 

How many books are too many for a series? — I don’t read a lot of series. Not from an aversion, of course. I simply read what appeals to me and more often than not those are standalones. The longest series I’ve read was seven books, Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. I see no reason to suppose that more could not work. However, there is something innately appealing – if more than one book is required – in the trilogy, we people love our threes. 

On the other hand, if the series is a series only by dint of a recurring character – as with many detective stories, for example – then many is fine by me, but I shan’t (I think) be reading them all. 

How do you feel about cliffhangers? For the reason stated above I don’t encounter cliffhangers often in what I read – not unless it’s at the end of a chapter. But I’d be wary of them. A book, for me, even as part of a series, should stand on its own. If the book is a good one, then that will be sufficient to make me want to read more in the series or from the author – I don’t need to be lured with promises of a conclusion I should already have – in fact, I might well resent the author for doing so. 

Hardcover or paperback? Unequivocally the paperback. They are, above all, more practical. But I also, and I note some disagree, find them more aesthetically pleasing. I have plenty of physical books and only 11 are hardbacks. Three, the final Harry Potter books, were gifts in my youth – that’s the only reason they haven’t been replaced. Seven are the Chronicles of Narnia box set – admittedly a beautiful set. And one, The Oxford Handbook on Psychopathy and the Law, was never released in paperback. I actively dislike hardbacks. 

Favourite book? I have three. They are not vying for the top spot but comfortably cohabiting it. I can foresee another joining their ranks at some point, but I doubt they will ever be “displaced”. These are, in no particular order, Nabokov’s Lolita, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Isherwood’s A Single Man

Least favourite? When I encounter a book I really dislike, I just don’t read it. I don’t need to dwell on them. However, if I am forced to read a book I really dislike – multiple times! – that will surely leave a mark on me. That book will surely be my least favourite book. So it is with – a controversial pick, I know – The Great Gatsby. What a pile of shit. 

Love triangles, yes or no? Again, something I don’t encounter too often – or if I have I haven’t noticed it in those terms. I don’t think of books in terms of tropes. Only quality. Are Dolores, Humbert and Quilty a love triangle? No, I expect not. 

The most recent book you couldn’t didn’t finish? The Cold War: A New Oral History of Life Between East and West by Bridget Kendall. I tried to explain why here. It wasn’t about the quality of the content, more a disjointedness that failed to provide any impetus for reading on. However, I do think I will finish it at some point. The benefit of that disjointedness – each section focuses on a different “event” in the cold war – is it can easily be picked up at a later date. 

 A  the book you are currently reading? I only read one at a time so it is Bridge of Spies by Giles Whittell, telling the story of the Glienicke Bridge exchange during the cold war. You may remember the decent Spielberg directed adaptation from a few years ago. A fascinating story that I intend to finish very soon. Up next is Dante’s The Divine Comedy

The last book you recommended to someone? I recommended Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality to my younger brother yesterday; following his asking me questions about religion and science – as he often does. He read a chapter; significant because he doesn’t read (I know!?). However, I see it is back on my shelf and I’d be surprised (pleasantly so) if he pursued it any further. 

Oldest book you’ve read by publication date? I haven’t checked the dates but I think it might be Plato’s Republic. If not that then another work from Ancient Greece (the Oresteia, perhaps? Those are plays, though…).

Newest book you’ve read by publication date? This is much harder to answer than the previous question. I don’t pay much attention to when a book is released, nor do I read new releases as they release. “The hype” has no effect on me. I suspect, in actuality, that it will have been a nonfiction, but I can’t for the life of me think what it would be. Therefore, I shall say Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. 

Favourite Author? First of all, no. And I’ll leave it there. Can’t go wrong with Orwell though. 

Buying or borrowing books? Buying. I read with a pen. Can’t do with that with borrowed books. Well, ought not to. 

A book you dislike that everyone seems to love? I refer you to my least favourite book, above. 

A book you can always re-read? There really are many, so I’ll instead say the one I actually have re-read most. That is A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood, one of my favourites as mentioned already. Unlike my other favourites, Single Man is a breeze to read. No particular mindset is required – read it happy and you’ll stay happy; read it sad and you’ll finish happy. Happy, perhaps, is not quite right – you will finish this book appreciating life, that’s more like it. 

Can you read while listening to music? Can I? Yes, but only classical or instrumental. But I typically don’t. I’m passionate about literature and passionate about music. My feelings about combining the two are the same as to combining Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola: nice but ultimately diminishing to both ingredients. 

One POV or multiple? As ever, quality is all that matters. As many or as few as best serve the story is alright with me. 

Do you read a book in one sitting or multiple days? I used to do the former, frequently. But I have made conscious efforts to slow down of late. And I am enjoying it. Occasionally, I think “you could have got through three books in the time this one has taken” – but I have my reasons. An exception will be made, however, when A Single Man next calls out to me – a few hours will be put aside especially for that. 

Who do you tag? I am torn between anyone and everyone. But definitely someone. Are you someone? 

Talking Points: The Autobiography of Malcolm X

“A Life of Reinvention” was the subtitle to a 2011 biography of Malcolm X. It’s a particularly apt description, and as such could have effectively served as the subtitle – or even alternate title – of The Autobiography. Malcolm himself states that his “life had been a chronology of changes”. This chronology of changes as presented in the book create, per Paul Gilroy’s Introduction, an indeterminacy that: 

“Gives the inattentive or casual reader an unwelcome freedom. Without a disciplined and careful reading of the text, they can, in effect, produce the Malcolm they desire from a range of options: hipster, prisoner, Muslim, socialist, anti-racist, and so on.”

All of which is to say that this, for me, is a difficult book – and life – to talk about. The truth of that being reflected in how many times I’ve attempted to write this post. 

But perhaps a still more apt subtitle for The Autobiography would be “An Invented life”. Despite the disparate parts of Malcolm’s life presented they ultimately constitute just that: a single life. I know from other sources, including articles and podcasts, that it is not always strictly true in the minor – perhaps even some major – details. I made a point, however, of not fact checking the book while or since reading it – my desire was to let the work speak for itself. 

The Autobiography, however, does not permit for a purely historical reading. A reader looking for simple answers to the question, “who is Malcolm X?” – who desire only to know “what happened” in his life – would do better to look elsewhere (perhaps, the aforementioned biography). Even without Gilroy’s Introduction, which does not appear in all editions, Alex Haley’s Foreword – as integral a part as Malcolm’s reminiscing – cannot and should not be ignored. 

Malcolm says: “Why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth must be reviewed. All our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.” Why am I as I am? Why this life – as “the angriest black man in America” – and not another? This is the question the work addresses – not who but why. 

Haley’s Foreword, as I was saying, suggests another layer, an abstraction of the question. Why am I presenting myself as I am here? Why the “invented life” as opposed to one accurate in the minutiae? Why this: 

“All of a sudden, I pulled out my gun, shook out all five bullets, and then let them see me put back only one bullet. I twirled the cylinder, and put the muzzle to my head… I pulled the trigger – we all heard it click.” ? 

And not, as revealed in the foreword, this: “I palmed the bullet”?  

Malcolm’s own explanation as to why the former not the latter suggests an image consciousness: “Too many people would be so quick to say that’s what I’m doing today, bluffing.” Indeed, we should assume in reading any autobiography that the writer and subject is presenting only what they want us to see – generally, the same can be said of all human interactions. I can well believe that Malcolm would be reticent to provide his enemies with any ammunition. 

Still I perceive something else, something deeper. The “invented” Malcolm is not wholly separate from the “real” one; rather, he is an exaggeration. Exaggerated to a point of, to quote Gilroy, “mythic significance.” He is both himself and a representative of something else. Despite what Malcolm says, that the entirety of a life must be considered to answer the question (Why am I as I am?), it is arguably not accurate as relates to him. 

“Why am I as I am?” can be answered for Malcolm and for millions more with the possession of a single fact. Malcolm is black. 

Why this “invented”, exaggerated life? Because that life portrays an absolute truth for Malcolm and the millions of other black people he represents. What difference does it make whether Malcolm palms the bullet or loads it? Either way his path led, and could only have led, to the gun, to the bottom rung of society. 

“Why am I as I am?” Malcolm’s answer, illustrated rather than stated, is this: what else could I have been? He was born into a society where, for people like him, questions like “who am I?” and “what do I want?” were of little, if any, importance. All that mattered was the “what I am”. Who is about individuality, and black skin precluded individuality. 

“Why am I as I am?” No! Malcolm is saying to his black readers and black audiences, why are you as you are? Why are we as we are? His answer – the answer – is his message to white (particularly American) readers: you are why I am as I am, you are why we are as we are; if not by your actions, then by your inaction. What would you have been had you lived my life, the life of a black man, as told here? What could you be? A lawyer, doctor, politician? 

It’s a sentiment echoed in British rapper Dave’s “Black” (than which, by the way, I can think of no better companion piece to this book – I implore you to listen to it): 

“We all struggle, but your struggle ain’t a struggle like me; well how could it be when your people gave us the odds that we beat?”

I hope I have conveyed what I want to convey here. I have by no means said, nor attempted to say, all that I could have. I have barely scratched the surface. I have refrained from addressing religion – and that, for me, is no mean feat. I have sidestepped the dated (archaically so) views on women. I have even chosen not to cover the frequent coverage of musicians that really must be listened to. Perhaps some other time.

You should read this book – yes, I mean you. But do not read it to learn about a single person, that would be a disservice. Read it to learn about the many forced to be one, by having their identities, their individuality, ignored. Regardless of your skin colour, read it and ask yourself: if that were me, what would I be? 

To finish up, I am conscious of two facts. 

First: a few days ago (21 February) marked the 56th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination. I simply feel I should acknowledge that. Undoubtedly a great loss. The saddest thing being that, shortly before his death, he underwent a fundamental change of view that, I believe, would radically alter the way he was remembered by the average person today. Too often, he is reduced to little more than a violent or anti-MLK. More than anything he was a man capable of changing his mind. I invite you to watch this video, to see what I mean and then watch any other featuring Mr X, you can’t go wrong. 

Second: I understand it is Black History Month in the US. I hope the reader will not think me wrong to not explicitly address the question of contemporary racism here. There are, frankly, innumerable other sources for that type of thing; and I do not perceive that I could add anything of value. Deferring to the wisdom of South Park (as is usually the correct thing to do!): 

“I get it now; I don’t get it… I’ve been trying to say that I understand how you feel, but, I’ll never understand.” 

And with that, I’m finished. I can’t believe I’ve finally written this! Anyone who has a thought to share feel free to do so. If you want to share a private, or vituperative, thought you can find my email on the About page. 

**Edition Read: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965, Penguin Classics, 2001)**

When Is A Word Not A Word?

Have you ever had this experience? You are speaking with someone and you use a word that the other person insists is “not a word”, but you know it is. What do you do? In days of yore, you consulted that weighty tome, that lexicon, the dictionary. And modern conveniences mean that “aha! See. I told you it was a word!” moment can be achieved within seconds no matter where you are. 

Now, imagine this. You are speaking with someone and you use a word that the other person insists is “not a word”, but you know it is. Same premise. This time, though, your interlocutor rifles through the pages of the dictionary – first finding the section of the disputed word’s initial, perusing the list by second letter, then third, and so forth, until – the word isn’t there! But you know it’s a word. 

Ah, you see the problem now. This dictionary is not an English one, but a Spanish one – or perhaps a German, French, Portuguese, whatever. The point, you understand, is that it’s not a dictionary of your language. 

Now imagine throughout your life, you’ve had occasional encounters with people like this. People who not only insist on using their dictionary; but who will also insist that any word contained in your dictionary but not in theirs is “not a word.” Congratulations, you’ve just experienced a part of growing up Scottish. More precisely Glaswegian, but I expect this holds true elsewhere. 

I want to talk to you about three words, for “words” is what they are and that is not up for debate. 

What is a Word? 

“In linguistics,” according to Wikipedia, and a healthy dose of common sense, “a word of a spoken language can be defined as the smallest sequence of phonemes that can be uttered in isolation with objective or practical meaning.” A word is a series of sounds that mean something to, that can be understood by, the speaker and someone – not everyone – else. 

WORD 1: “Yous” or “Youse” 

Plural form of “You”: what are yous doing? 

When I was younger, and among a certain contingency of Scots – admittedly a minor one and that’s why I lead with this word – the use of “yous” would lead to beration. “The word is you, the plural of you is you.” “Yous”, we’re told, is not a word. 

Except, of course, yous is a word. Not only is yous a word, it is one of the single most useful words in the English-adjacent languages. It is a series of sounds [y-oo-z], or phonemes [ j ʊ z ], that can be spoken in isolation and readily understood by others – every Scot, for present purposes, but it is also used elsewhere. It is, therefore, a word. 

But I began with the word least likely to cause controversy. Yous might not use it, but I’m sure you can understand how it derives – add ‘s’ to ‘you’, as with almost every other plural form in English. 

WORD 2: “Cannae” – pronounced as canny. 

Cannot, can’t – I cannae do that! (Really: “I cannae dae that”, but let’s sidestep that for the time being.)

Interesting feature of the language this, you can see the exact same thing elsewhere: ‘wouldnae’, ‘couldnae’, ‘shouldnae’. I’ll let you figure out what those mean, it shouldnae be hard.

“Cannae” is “not a word”. But again, it is. For the same reasons as above. A series of sounds that can be recognised by someone – not, necessarily, everyone – other than the speaker. Very common in Scots particularly in the Glasgow vernacular.

You might argue that this is, in fact, just a matter of pronunciation. But yous tell me how “can’t” could possibly be construed as “cannae”, I bet yous cannae. 

WORD 3: “Jamp” – pronounced as it appears. 

Past tense and past participle of ‘Jump’, synonym of ‘Jumped’ – the cow jamp over the moon.

This is the really contentious one. Contentious even among Scots. Absolutely the word most likely to provoke that nonsense phrase “that’s not a word.” Jamp isnae a word? Of course it is, numpty. Why? Exactly as before, a series of sounds that you can say to others and some of them will know what you mean. 

Like, I said, though, this one is contentious among Scots, too. A perusal of the Urban Dictionary, that veritable treasure trove of incisive analysis, reveals the following: 

  • Entry 2, from user JumpednotJamp (yes, that’s how passionate some people are about the word): “A made-up word that is used in place of the word ‘jumped’ in some areas of Scotland”. 
  • Entry 9, from user Falconhooooof (I didn’t count the ‘o’s, life’s too short): “A slang word used in Scotland… if you think it sounds stupid that’s because it is only stupid people use it [sic].” 
  • Entry 10, from user Itishokesblyd: “When your [sic] a retard and cant [sic] say jumoed [sic] you say jamp.” 

There are a couple of entries in support of jamp. But these users, attesting that it is not a word – what are they doing? First off, what word, pray tell, is not “made-up”? More specifically, what have these people done? 

They have recognised a series of sounds, they have demonstrated that they know what that sequence of sounds means to those who understand it (which, by that stage, includes them) and they have then “publicised” the “not a word” in an online “dictionary”. 

A dictionary, by the way, is “a book or electronic resource that lists the words of a language.” JAMP IS A WORD.

Before, concluding, let me share this story from The Herald’s Scots Word of the Week feature: 

“A few years ago I [Pauline Cairns Speitel of Scottish Language Dictionaries] visited a school in Inverness to talk about Scots and English. “I hope you’re going to tell them off about ‘jamp’,” said the teacher sternly, as we walked down the corridor. It turned out that children were using the word as a past tense of ‘jump’.” 

A teacher! A Scottish teacher! telling her pupils that their language is invalid. That is growing up Scottish. Incidentally, though, Ms. Spietel’s response was perfect: 

“I’m sorry [she shouldnae be] to say that — feeling a trifle impish that day — I proceeded to write the word [‘jamp’] on the board, and the schoolchildren cheered.” 

Damn straight, Pauline! Pauline goes onto explain that she thought it a new word, Pauline of Scottish Language Dictionaries had never heard it before. But she was wrong. Her research revealed ‘jamp’ had been used in Scotland since at least the early 19th century. 

If a word is “not a word” after 200 years of constant use then the concept of words has no meaning whatsoever. 


So, this has been a long post. It’s a subject I’m passionate about. What do I want you to take from this. Well, first of all, why not start using these words – okay, I know most of you won’t. What I want you to take away is simply this: when you hear a word you don’t recognise, a slang word, a word that’s just recently come into existence that you don’t particularly like never – never, ever! – resort to the phrase “that’s not a word.” 

The correct response – what you actually mean, even if you don’t want to admit it – is “that is not a word I would use.” 

Except LOL (“lawl”); that’s not a word. I jest, of course.

Hope yous enjoyed this post and would love to hear your thoughts on it, or anything similar. Also, would anyone be interested in more musings on Glaswegian?

Vocabulary – Books 1 – 10

Compiled here, in alphabetical order, are the words that I had to look up while reading Books 1 – 10. If your idea of fun is not a long list of words and their respective meanings, I’d advise you don’t read this post. If, however- like me-, you consider the dictionary as legitimate a book to read as any other, enjoy!

(!Offensive! Warning – this list contains an apparent offensive North American term for “a black person”. This word has been separated from the main list and placed at the end, with a clear heading. But if you do not want to see it, scroll carefully. End disclaimer.)

  • Abstemious (adj.) indulging only very moderately in something, especially food and drink. 
  • Apothegm (n.) a concise saying or maxim; an aphorism.
  • Asperity (n.) harshness of tone or manner. 
  • Avocation (n.); -ally (adv.) <formal> a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation, especially for enjoyment; hobby.
  • Ayah (n.) a nursemaid or nanny employed by Europeans in India or another former British territory.
  • Blackjack (n.)  3. [N. American] a flexible lead-filled truncheon
  • Boola-Boola (n.) a football song of Yale University (Wikipedia)
  • Bravo (n.) a thug or hired assassin. 
  • Catercorner (adj.) [N. American] situated diagonally opposite something or someone. 
  • Char (v.) <informal> British, work as a charwoman. 
  • Charcuterie (n.) 1. Cold cooked meats. 
  • Cognoscenti (n.) people who are especially well informed about a particular subject. 
  • Colloquy (n.) <formal> a conversation
  • Commote (v.) <obsolete> to disturb or agitate, to disrupt also in the positive sense, to put into (more) commotion, to stir up, to add to the activity of. (Wiktionary)
  • Contumacious (adj.); -ly (adv.) <archaic> [Law] (especially of a defendant’s behaviour) stubbornly or wilfully disobedient to authority.
  • Corrigendum, pl: -a (n.) a thing to be corrected, typically an error in a printed book. 
  • Dun (v.) make persistent demands (on someone), especially for payment of a debt. 
  • Effulgent (adj.); Effulgence (n.) 1.<literary> shining brightly; radiant. 2. <literary> (of a person or their expression) emanating joy or goodness. 
  • Eleemosynary (adj.) <formal> relating to or dependent on charity; charitable. 
  • Emulous (adj.); -ly (adv.) 1. <formal> seeking to emulate someone or something. 2. <formal> motivated by a spirit of rivalry. 
  • Enuresis (n.) [medical] a repeated inability to control urination. 
  • Equerry (n.) <historical> an officer of the household of a prince or noble who had charge over the stables. 
  • Exegete (n.) a person who interprets text, especially scripture
  • Exordium (n.) <formal> the beginning or introductory part, especially of a discourse or treatise
  • Expectorate (v.) cough or spit out (phlegm) from the throat or lungs. 
  • Fissiparous (adj.) inclined to cause or undergo division into separate parts or groups.
  • Gallinaceous (adj.) <dated> relating to birds of an order (Galliformes) which includes domestic poultry and game birds. 
  • Grimalkin (n.) 1. <archaic> a cat. 2. <archaic> a spiteful old woman. 
  • Gubernatorial (adj.) relating to a governor, particularly that of a state in the US. 
  • Indue/Endue (v.) 2. To take on, to take the form of. 3. To put on (a piece of clothing), to clothe someone with something. (Wiktionary)
    •  Reindue (v.) Indue/endue again. 
  • Infra dig (adj.) <informal> [British] beneath one; demeaning.
  • Irrupt (v.); -ion (n.) to rush in forcibly or suddenly. 
  • Layette (n.) a complete outfit of clothing and equipment for a newborn infant. 
  • Matutinal (adj.) <formal> of or occurring in the morning. 
  • Maulvi (n.) (especially in South Asia) a Muslim doctor of the law. 
  • Nictate (v.) <rare> blink. 
  • Occidental (adj.) relating to the countries of the West (i.e. the Occident).
  • Occidental (n.) a native or inhabitant of the West. 
  • Odoriferous (adj.) having or giving off a smell, especially an unpleasant one. 
  • Ordure (n.) exrecement; dung. 
  • Pasiano (n.) [US] a peasant of Spanish or Italian ethnic origin. 
  • Pertinacious (adj.) <formal> holding firmly to an opinion or a course of action. 
  • Phyllotaxis (n.) [Botany] the arrangement of leaves on an axis or stem (Wikipedia).
  • Prelusive (adj.) serving as a prelude or introduction; preliminary.
  • Purdah (n.) the practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain; the curtain used for the purpose of purdah.
  • Quidnunc (n.) <archaic> an inquisitive and gossipy person. 
  • Radiogram (n.) <historical> a combined radio and record player built into a cabinet with a speaker. 
  • Ravelin (n.) a triangular fortification or detached outwork, located in front of the innerworks of a fortress (Wikipedia)
  • Red-letter day (n.) a day that is pleasantly noteworthy or memorable. 
  • Rotgut (n.) <informal> poor-quality and potentially harmful alcoholic drink.
  • Sawbones (n.) <informal> a doctor or surgeon
  • Sahib (n.) [Indian] polite title or form of address for a man. 
  • Scapegrace (n.) <archaic> a mischievous or wayward person, especially a young person or child; a rascal. 
  • Shavian (adj.) relating to or in the manner of George Bernard Shaw or his writings or ideas. 
  • Shavian (n.) an admirer of G. B. Shaw or his works. 
  • Sybarite (n.) a person who is self-indulgent in their fondness for sensual luxury. 
  • Tergiversation (n.) evasion of a straightforward action or clear-cut statement; equivocation.
    • Tergiversatory (adj.) displaying or practicing tergiversation. 
  • Venial (adj.) [Christian Theology] denoting a sin that is not regarded as depriving the soul of divine grace; (of a fault or offence) slight and pardonable. 

Casus belli – Latin, an act or situation that provokes or justifies a war, literally “occasion for war”.

Lessus – Latin, 1. A wailing, cry. 2. Funeral lamentation. (Wiktionary)

Pede claudo Latin, abbreviation of “pede poena claudo”: “punishment comes limping”. 

Dewanee – Hindi, “the madness” (per The Jungle Book) referring to “hydrophobia” i.e. rabies. 


  • Jigaboo (n.) <offensive> [N. American] a black person. 

Weekly Assortment: 14 – 20 February 2021

Books Read: 

Oh, boy, oh, boy. My “target” for this week was to have finished Seven Gables and about half of Bridge of Spies. Didn’t happen. Earlier in the week, I wrote about my growing streak of consecutive non-reading days – well it continued to grow. 10 days in total. Then I finished the Gables on Friday, and started Bridge of Spies yesterday – but at least I’m back in the swing of things now. 

Weekly Assortment… 

Before I move onto the Weekly Assortment I thought I’d address a question that could sensibly be asked. An assortment of what? Just stuff, really. As a Scot, it’s almost incumbent upon me to never use a “normal” word where a curse word will suffice. So an assortment of shit. That’s “shit” as in stuff. As for my commentary on the shit, that’s shit too, but of bovine extraction.

House of the Seven Gables – Nomads

Late in the Seven Gables siblings Hepzibah and Clifford Pyncheon venture forth from the House that, until then, they had inhabited hermit-like. Attempting to leave earlier in the book, they had swiftly turned back: “It is too late… We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings, – no right anywhere but in this old house, which has a curse on it, and which, therefore, we are doomed to haunt.” 

But events do force them out, and they use, for the first time, a train. On the train, they witness micro-society: “Sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!” (Hawthorne loves the exclamation mark, by the way.)

It is in conversation with a fellow passenger that Clifford sets out his view that the trains, a new mode of efficient travel, will change the way we live. Or, rather, restore the way we live to what it was once: that of nomads. “These railroads,” he says, “-could but the whistle be made musical, and the rumble and jar got rid of – are positively the greatest blessing that the ages have wrought for us. They give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel! Transition being so facile, what can be any man’s inducement to tarry in one spot?” 

This change never, as far as I can tell, truly transpired. We, people, are as much attached to our homes as in preceding centuries. Indeed, Clifford’s own view here is motivated more by what waits at his home, than a love of travel – though undoubtedly he’s right in saying that “The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it.” 

But I have also been prone, at times, to romanticise a nomadic way of life. I expect I am not alone in that. But this has got me wondering, travel now being so easy – far more facile than in Clifford’s time – why do we remain so rooted? Why not live a more, though not wholly, nomadic life? Perhaps recent developments are what we needed, an illustration that working from home (or from anywhere) can work. In all honesty, I don’t even believe myself here. Clifford argues, as others have, that history functions cyclically, but, in my opinion, only cataclysm would take us back to nomadry. 

Speaking of cataclysm…

Bridge of Spies – Nuclear Fashion

Whittell’s account of Cold War espionage begins with a changed world, the nuclear age has come. The July 24, 1946, weapons test as Bikini Lagoon, the Baker shot, starts us off. There is very famous footage of this and if you haven’t seen it, you must – what is it about sheer destructive capacity that makes it simultaneously beautiful? 

Anyway, one way Whittell illustrates the changes wrought by nuclear weapons is regarding the USS Arkansas, a 27,000-ton battleship, that was in service since before World War I. It was taken to the Bikini Lagoon to die. “For most of [the Arkansas’] life the only way for a battleship to go down had been with guns blazing, but the nuclear age had changed that. It turned out that with the help of an atom bomb a battleship could go down like a toy in a bath.” Frightening what humanity can do. 

More cheerily, however, Whittell points out that while “the world adjusted to an awesome new technology”, it also adjusted to the fashion it inspired. The bikini swimsuit was named for the Bikini Atoll where the weapons were tested. That is not particularly surprising. But did you know, I didn’t, that the first bikini, displayed in Paris in July 1946 as well, was called the l’atome. (That, for any Francophobes, means THE ATOM). 

More cheerily still, the second bikini, we are told, “was a buttock-baring thong described by one fashion writer as what the survivor of a nuclear blast could expect to be wearing as the fireball subsided.” Who knew fashion writers were so witty – not I. 

Next Week…

That’s all I’ve got to share for this week(ly assortment). Now there’s the matter of targets for next week, which I’ve committed myself to making. These will be: 

  • Bridge of Spies completed
  • The Divine Comedy started

Not hugely ambitious I know, I like to keep it simple. Arbitrarily I might say, I hope to be around 200 pages into The Divine Comedy, but I don’t see much benefit in that. So long as I finish one and start the next, I will consider the week a success (as far as reading goes, success at life in general is more difficult to measure).

Quotes: The Magic of Reality

I’ve now posted my review of Richard Dawkin’s The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True on Goodreads, and you can check that out if you want. I’ll post the same review here with the other February reads when the month is done. Concisely: what a wonderful book, not perfect, but damn good. 

It was only after compiling my favourite quotes that I realised they all illustrate the book’s thesis to some degree. All of them also display Dawkins’ beautiful writing, it simply flows off the page. 

Dawkins states his thesis, to which all these quotes speak, early on: 

“In this sense, ‘magical’ simply means deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive. What I hope to show you in this book is that reality – the facts of the real word as understood through the methods of science – is magical in this third sense, the poetic sense, the good to be alive sense.” (p. 21)

Life, Evolution

Dawkins excels, for obvious reasons, in describing the wonder of evolution in a way that allows the reader to truly appreciate it, and to be awe-inspired. It can be humbling and perspective changing, and even – as the first quote attests – quite funny to consider the implications of evolution. With the last quote in this group Dawkins is suggesting why life on other planets might not be entirely different from our own. Eyes, it is simply true, are pretty good things to have. 

“Your fish ancestor had a fishy child, who had a fishy child, who had a child… who, 185 million (gradually less fishy) generations later, turned out to be you.” (page 41)

“Next time you see an animal – any animal – or any plant, look at it and say to yourself: what I am looking at is an elaborate machine for passing on the genes that made it. I’m looking at a survival machine for genes. Next time you look in the mirror, just think: that is what you are too.” (page 75)

“Eyes are pretty good things to have, and that is going to be true on most planets.” (page 194)


“Space” is a bit general. In these quotes Dawkins discusses what a day and year is, what seasons are, and the sun. I just love the idea of those “two great rhythms” dominating our lives, it’s beautiful expressions like these that ensure Dawkins is always a good read. His words on the sun say something about myth and legends – well they say what Dawkins believes about. First, reality is wonderful, he can understand why people would think it magical. Second, however, what people have imagined has not done justice to the true majesty of things. 

“Our lives are dominated by two great rhythms, one much slower than the other.” (page 100)

“Night and day, winter and summer: these are the great alternating rhythms that rule our lives, and the lives of all living creatures except perhaps those that live in the dark, cold depths of the sea.” (page 121)

“The sun is so dazzlingly bright, so comforting in cold climates, so mercilessly scorching in hot ones, it is no wonder many peoples have worshipped it as a god.” (page 124) 

“Perhaps those ancient peoples would have worshipped the sun even more devotedly had they realised just how much all life depended on it.” (page 143)

Bad Things

In one chapter Dawkins addresses the idea, among other things, that the world is vindictive. As in the “world is out to get me”. Is bad luck a thing, are superstitions correct? No, they’re not. But my gran’s dog stepped on a crack and four days later, the postman died. Coincidences – or, to hand over to Dawkins: 

“Bad things happen because things happen.” (page 226)

“Coins, and slices of toast, have no way of knowing the strength of your desires, and no desire of their own to thwart them – or fulfil them.” (page 222)

Or do they? No they still don’t. But Dawkins does make the following point which is pretty fun and draws firmly on his background in evolution again. It’s a better survival tactic, he says, to act as if something might go wrong, than to act as if nothing can. 

“There are enemies out there, shaped by natural selection as though they were scheming to kill me. The world is not neutral and indifferent to my welfare. The world is out to get me. Sod’s Law may or may not be true, but behaving as if it is true is safer than behaving as if Pollyana’s Law is true.” (page 229)


Lastly, I think this passage highlights the tone of Dawkins’ writing in the book really well. It’s conversational, the reader is made to feel like an interlocutor with Dawkins rather than a reader. It’s a book that is clearly meant to provoke further discussion, it routinely asks the audience what we think. But the quote also contributes to Dawkins’ aim, as important a part of the scientific method of anything else is admitting what we do not (yet) know.

“But [quarks are] not something I’m going to talk about in this book. That’s not because I think you wouldn’t understand it. It’s because I know I don’t understand it. We are here moving into a wonderland of the mysterious. And it is important to recognize when we reach the limits of what we understand.” (page 93)

And that’s it, my favourite quotes from The Magic of Reality. I could say much more about it and likely will soon. The edition I read and referred to here was the *2011, Black Swan paperback*.  

I hope you enjoyed these quotes as much as I, and that you might be encouraged to read this excellent primer in scientific thinking. Better yet, parents, read it to or with your kids; start a conversation. 

Talking Points: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Jekyll and Hyde is a book about which no further discussion is needed. It’s a classic in every sense of the word – in age, content, style and influence. You may not have read the book, but you know – broadly – what it’s about. 

I had previously read an abridgement of the book when much younger. Considering Jekyll and Hyde’s original length it’s a small wonder that it could be abridged, I certainly don’t think an abridgement was needed. You can read my review of the book, which was favourable, here on the blog or on Goodreads

Strange Case of The Strange Case…

Sidestepping the book’s content entirely to start with, a point on the title: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, right? 

Apparently not. The original title, on publication in 1886, was simply Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (no “The”). 

Okay, that’s not really worth discussing, but I just find it weird. It sounds weird. Perhaps one can be stricken ill by a strange case of the Jekyll and Hydes. 

The Mystery Solved 

I mentioned in my review that I regretted the fact I could never read Jekyll and Hyde unspoiled. It is very clearly a mystery story. The “strange case” of the title does not refer to what happened to Jekyll, per se, but to the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde. There are clues, throughout, pointing to the truth of the matter, as there must be in any good mystery. 

All those clues pointing to the fact that Jekyll and Hyde are, essentially, the same person. But it’s no longer a mystery. Everyone knows. I cannot even fairly assess, now, whether the answer was startlingly obvious from the get go. That is how pervasive the knowledge of Jekyll and Hyde is, I cannot recall a time when I didn’t know the answer. 

But, given my favourable review, this has clearly not been too detrimental to the reading experience. It took writing this post to make me understand what about the book was so great. I had, in all honesty, been considering deducting a star (I gave it 4). But now, I think I’ve solved the mystery.

I said in the review that the book broached deep subjects without seeming deep. Indeed, I think that’s what makes it great. It’s a short book but it simply and effectively conveys, if not the answers, at least a few questions. It’s a book on which discussions can be based, so let’s do that now.


Probably most prominently Jekyll and Hyde is a tale of duality, that much is prominently stated in the text. Jekyll sees that “man is not truly one, but truly two”, within each of us exists a capacity and desire for good and evil, right and wrong – in matters of self we can be -ish or -less. 

Jekyll’s drug allows for all the selfishness of which a man is capable to become embodied and uninhibited. In Hyde there is no duality; Hyde is, and in this instance such a generalisation is warranted, evil. 

I think, however, that there can be a tendency, not helped by the way the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” is commonly used, to present Jekyll as Hyde’s polar moral opposite. To say that Hyde represents evil; and Jekyll good. This is not so, Jekyll is not a paragon of moral excellence, per se; Jekyll is man, and man is “truly two.” 

Indeed, Jekyll himself states: “I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” The duality is not between Jekyll and Hyde, but, within Jekyll, between Hyde and an unnamed and unknown other. 

In times of normality, when Jekyll is in the driving seat, he is a constant arbiter between Hyde and the other within his consciousness. When Jekyll does good, despite what else he wants to do, what Hyde would do, he sides with the other. When he does bad, despite what “the other” would do, he sides with Hyde. 

This other, were it embodied as Hyde has been, would be, in simple terms, perfectly selfless. As Hyde single-mindedly pursues anything that will bring him pleasure, this other would consider its own pleasure of the least concern. Would it care about its own wellbeing? Perhaps. But would it care about its own wealth? It’s hard to see how it could.

While Mr Hyde made plans to ensure he was provided for in the event of Jekyll’s “death or disappearance”; would this other take steps to donate Jekyll’s estate to charities, would it await his death to do this, surely now is as good a time as any? As good a time. Moreover, can we not see how this other “radical” alternative is, in some ways, as undesirable as Hyde; and that this other is most assuredly not Jekyll himself. 

Jekyll and Hyde are not the duality. Jekyll is the battleground on which the duality meets. 

The Ring of Gyges

Dr Henry Jekyll is, though, a good person. Well is he? What does that mean? 

We know that the observer, Henry Jekyll is a respectable, well-liked man. He’s kind, generous and caring. His visible actions are those of a good man. And surely, if you act like a good man, you are a good man? Well, maybe not, the why matters as much as the what. 

Plato famously wrote of the mythical “ring of gyges”, which grants the wearer invisibility. The evil man – the unjust – we can imagine what he would do with such a ring. What need have we to fear committing crimes without risk of capture? The good man – the just man -, however, really ought to act no differently; because, detectable or not, good is good and bad is bad. Would the good man even want such a ring? 

We know that Jekyll would accept the ring, we know that he would use it. He was able to live dangerously through Hyde, committing terrible deeds that could not be connected to him. Things, in other words, that he would not have done were he visible. Jekyll is not good in these pure terms, a great part of his reasons for being good are reputational. 

Again, however, because Jekyll is neither Hyde nor that other of incorruptible “goodness”, he is not wholly bad. Even with the ring of gyges, even without any earthly accountability, Jekyll has limits. Hyde’s depravity is greater than Jekyll can cope with. Jekyll cannot bear to have trampled a girl or killed a man, whether he is blamed or not. 

The reasons are not obscure. We all have things that, like Jekyll, we do not do because they are “not the done thing”, because it would be damaging to be seen to have done them. We all have things, on the other hand, that we simply would not do. This is the difference – as I said, not obscure. 

Perhaps, then, we can all understand Jekyll’s initial and repeated assumption of the Hyde role. You, there, can I tempt you? 100% foolproof disguise, absolutely undetectable, and a spray can – want to graffiti? A mask that could trick your mother, and a broad selection of narcotics – care to sample? Cast off the shackles of your identity and take this axe – let’s go kill someone! 

Clearly – inarguably, so please don’t try – one of these activities is “more bad” than the others. Our conception of “good” is not – because we are not “the other” – uniform; some things, to us, are worse than others; the reason things are “bad” is not the same reason for everything. 

So how would you play hyde and seek with the ring of gyges? What would any of us do? How many Jekyll’s are only so because they couldn’t get away with being Hyde? Are you one of them? 

Scientific Heresy

I have just said, and I believe, that the taking of “narcotics” is less bad than murder. 

But I suppose I would be remiss to not point out that Jekyll’s scientific heresy, the means by which he becomes Hyde, is a drug. The science, of course, is not explained, nor, clearly, is it possible – the drug produces not just a mental change but an instantaneous physical one, Hyde is shorter than Jekyll. 

The parallels between drug addiction and Hydeing are stark though. The first use, euphoric; the drug at its most potent. With each repetition, however, something changes in you, you are less you. As this happens, Hyde’s stature grows, he becomes physically strong, and mentally strong. The drug has a hold on you. It is a hold Jekyll cannot, ultimately, overcome. 

But, I don’t think personally the drug is the point. I do not think this is a book about drug addiction. The drug is merely the means, I suggest, by which Stevenson addresses the central question – that of the duality of human nature and society. We are all capable of good and bad, and we each are either neither or “radically both”. Society consists, wholly and problematically, of individuals, each with their own desires and needs; how do I reconcile my wants with those of society? 

An Answer

What is Stevenson’s answer to these problems, then? What are we Homo sapiens to do about our dual natures? 

Nothing. We should keep our dual natures. We are our dual natures. As I’ve gone to some pains to illustrate Jekyll is neither good nor evil, he is the decider. We are each deciders, that is our function. All day, every day, our own Hyde and our own “other” counsel and solicit us; we accept all advice, and then make our own decision*. If we routinely accept the advice of the “other” we are seen to be good people; if we more often act as Hyde instructs, then we are seen as bad. But, however we are seen, we are, always, radically both. 

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886, AmazonClassics, 2017)

*For present purposes I am ignoring arguments concerning the existence of free will. I am, however, aware that there is some debate as to whether we “decide” anything. I’m sure some book or other will catalyse a discussion on the matter at a later date.

The Lost Week: 7 – 13 February 2021

I usually post a “weekly assortment” on Sundays, covering the week (Sun-Sat) preceding, with some interesting (to me) details of what I’ve been reading – connections, fun, interesting ideas, etc. But I’ve fallen behind, I didn’t post one for the week beginning 7th February. 

Moreover, I’ve fallen behind on my reading. I haven’t read a page in seven days. The House of the Seven Gables has only 93 pages to go – and has had for a week! 

So I have nothing new – no weekly assortment – to share. 

But it’s for this lack of consistency in reading that I made my list. My aim was not to get through the list as quickly as possible, nor even within a given time, but simply to do so consistently. Read something every day. No more, I resolved, would I decide it was easier not to read than to choose what next to read – as I had done so often before. 

Apparently, it was not enough. There are other enticements in life, and indeed life gets in the way. But that’s no excuse. I need to inject some accountability into proceedings. The way to do this, though I hate to admit it, is deadlines or targets. 


First of all, I’m going to put a weekly target at the end of each weekly assortment. 

On Sunday 21 I should publish a weekly assortment for this week (14th – 20th).

My targets to be met by that date are: 

  • Finish The House of the Seven Gables
  • Complete approximately 50% of Bridge of Spies


Target two is the more interesting one. I’ve decided to set a target based on groupings of ten books. Indeed, I’ve decided to use decads of books as a sort of natural reflection point for my reading and blogging. 

The House of the Seven Gables being Book 10, clearly I will finish my first decad (hopefully!) this week. On finishing each tenth book I will make a post reflecting and projecting – i.e. I’ll assess my reading over the past and set a target for the future. A date by which I hope to have finished the next ten books. 

So hopefully, with these two methods, I’ll encourage myself, trick myself, into thinking I have to read. And I’ll be able to check whether things have improved again once I finish Book 20, Doctor Zhivago

For the sake of consistency…

For the sake of consistency in blogging, let me include at least one nugget that would usually make it into my weekly assortment. This, obviously, came from House of the Seven Gables, and speaks to the “moral” of the story: 

“To plant a family! This idea is at the bottom of most of the wrong side and mischief which men do. The truth is, that, once in every half-century, at longest, a family should be merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget all about its ancestors. Human blood, in order to keep its freshness, should run in hidden streams, as the water of an aqueduct is conveyed in subterranean pipes.” (page 180*)

To some this idea will be anathema; to others it will ring true. Plato himself, I seem to recall, denounced the utility of being raised by family in The Republic. I personally consider close kin (parents, grandparents, siblings, children, grandchildren) and chosen kin (i.e. spouses, etc.) family in the important sense; while my ancestry and my distant relatives really are no more to me than an “obscure mass of humanity.” 

I would not be so bold as to state that most of man’s wrongs were done for want of family. But I can certainly appreciate that some of them were. Legacy can be corrosive. 

What Do You Think? 

I know this post isn’t of the most participatory nature, but I’d like to know: how do you make sure you read consistently? Or don’t you? And of course, do you agree with Hawthorne’s (and Plato’s) assessment of family? 

*The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851, AmazonClassics, 2017)

Weekly Assortment 31 Jan – 6 Feb 2021

Books Read The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins (29 Jan – 3 Feb) and The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (4 Feb, still reading)

Origin Myth, Myth Origin? 

A through line of Dawkins’ Magic of Reality is how myths get started. Its culmination, I think, is in Chapter 9: Are We Alone [in the Universe]? 

Before moving onto equally interesting considerations of the mathematical likelihood of life on other planets, he hones in on UFO and abduction myths of the modern era. Here, he says, we can observe how myths begin. He points to sleep paralysis and false memories (false memory syndrome – is a false memory always a syndrome? Mechanically it seems to be something our minds are “programmed” to do. Perhaps it is only a syndrome if it causes a change to your life – and then, surely, only a negative one – or so alters your perception of reality that you function neither in this reality or any other.) But I’ve gone off topic…

To  rephrase Dawkins suggests sleep paralysis and false memory syndrome explain why people presently might believe they were abducted by aliens. False memory syndrome has had awful implications in certain legal cases (see, for example, the fascinating documentary ‘Out of Thin Air’). Sleep paralysis on the other hand was the inspiration for a terrible horror film, quite likely several; but, I can forgive it for that, as a fascinating phenomenon. 

Of course, human psychology, it is reasonable to believe, has remained the same for vast amounts of time, in human terms, of course. We have the same tendencies as our ancestors, and our ancestor’s ancestors, and so on; human tendencies. So: if modern day mythical encounters can be explained using sleep paralysis and false memories, among other things. And, it is worth noting, these can also explain dream visitations of other kinds, including those of dead US presidents that give inspiring speeches or the like (of course, that can equally adequately be explained as a dream). 

If false memories and sleep paralysis account for modern myth; then they also account for ancient myths. How many monsters have been created by these human tendencies? These among other tendencies? For what of religiously motivated violence and persecution? What of the witch hunts? 

Witch Hunts

I went into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables completely blind, knowing naught of neither author nor novel. I was pleasantly surprised that it was… funny, there’s something delightful, exuberant in it, but I’ll come to that. First, Hawthorne’s lines on the madness of crowds. 

“Old Matthew Maule was executed, in a word, for the crime of Witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. 

“Clergymen, judges, statesmen,” it continues, “the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived.” Human nature, human tendencies. Of course, there are crueller tendencies too, such as the Colonel’s in the novel. Notably none of this is really spoiler content, despite a long and fascinating history of ‘The House of the Seven Gables’, the narrator covers it in a single chapter. 

The Storyteller

The narrator of The House of the Seven Gables, by the way, is kind of fascinating. He is a real person, a fictional real person that is, but he does not play a role in events – he has stopped by the locus a couple of times over the years, but never become entwined in its history. How then he knows every step that is made, and every feeling that is felt, is beyond us. But the narration is, I’m sure, what made Seven Gables such a pleasant surprise to me. 

Whoever he is, he’s funny. He introduces our main character, Hepzibah, before she is strictly “ready” to have her story begin (she, of course, knows nothing of narrator or readers’ presence). “Far from us,” the narrator says, “be the indecorum of assisting, even in imagination, at a maiden lady’s toilet! Our story must therefore await.” 

Of course, the story does not await, for the narrator does not await. He provides a precis of her current living situations – leading to the fact that the houses layout rendering the present “sighs” emanating from her “lady’s toilet” inaudible; then, somehow, intruding on her very feelings before her “devotions are concluded.” 

Nor, is this narrator afraid to criticise his subject, by the way, “No; [Hepzibah] had never had a lover – poor thing, how could she?” Yes, the narrator is strange, indeed, I’m sure I’ll have more to say on him at some point. 

The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins (2011, Blackswan) -and- The House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851, AmazonClassics, e-Book, 2017)

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