Wednesday, May 28, 2008

This Week in Reading May 25 - 31

"It was a dark and stormy night:"

Those seven words were only the beginning of the first line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1830 novel, Paul Clifford; -- fifty-one words followed those seven, with parentheticals and dashes -- and, (though cartoonist Charles Schulz's Snoopy popularized those words,) they have led to the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which contestants write overlong, bad opening sentences like this one:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, -- except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

Though that annual worst fiction contest is oddly not on Bulwer-Lytton's birthday, other writers born this week include some real masters of the craft. One of them, the oft quoted essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born on the very same day. Story writers abound with Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Jamaica Kincaid. Mystery and suspense is strong this week, too, with Dashiell Hammett, Tony Hillerman, Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming. Also frequently recited are poets Walt Whitman and Theodore Roethke.

This Week's Question: Another author born this week is responsible for a quote that is apropos to Bulwer-Lytton as well to everyone else: "You could compile the worst book in the world entirely out of selected passages from the best writers in the world." Who is it?

Answer to Last Week's Questions: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle studied medicine and joined another doctor after he graduated, then later set up a general practice on his own. However, his was not a successful practice so he spent his unoccupied hours writing stories. For a time he tried to be an opthamologist but had no patients and so wrote more and became, obviously, very successful at that instead of medicine.

(The other question was misleading only in the sense that John Barth ended up on two days of our list somehow. Actually born only on May 27th, he was this librarian's freshman English professor at the State Unversity of New York, Buffalo. The survey course he taught covered English literature chronologically, and you had to know who wrote what and when to keep up with the postmodernist, literarily reflective metafiction that Barth wrote in his off campus hours. Maybe it led eventually to this desire to keep track of writers, but did not finish school then, -- restarted and completed it and then some years later -- and never finished reading one of his books, anyway. In The Sot Weed Factor Barth is pretending to be an actual seventeenth century author but he's really satirizing that style of early picaresque fiction from today's viewpoint but ... Wait a minute, now knowing literature a bit better maybe can go back to keep up with it and finish it. Oh, all the books in a library waiting to be read! Can we get to them all?)

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