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Poster by Hog Island Press. Click to enlarge

I guess it says something about the way Americans view themselves that this phrase exists at all and is indeed common currency. Nobody’s ever heard of The Great Scottish Novel, The Great English Novel, The Great French Novel, The Great Danish Novel, etc., etc. Why do we Americans seek “Great”, and especially why would we think “The” was appropriate or even desirable in such a context? Novels are not in competition with one another. All the novels on that chart are fine novels, some may be great, but why do you need to come up with one winner?

I see this phenomenon as related to the fact that a draw or tie is not considered an acceptable result in American sports. Baseball games can, potentially, go on forever, until one team wins. I just discovered that there are circumstances, too complicated for us to understand, that can lead to an American football game’s ending in a draw, but few people seem ever to have observed this. Football games* end in draws all the time and nobody has any trouble dealing with their team getting one point rather than the three they’d have had with a win. So why do Americans require victory in everything including their self-inflicted great novel race?

The Literary Hub has a piece on this question by Ursula K. Le Guin where she objects to the even sillier question “Where is the Great American Novel by a woman?”. She quotes Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid who responds “. . . Bear with me as I advocate the death of the Great American Novel. The problem is in the phrase itself. ‘Great’ and ‘Novel’ are fine enough. But ‘the’ is needlessly exclusionary, and ‘American’ is unfortunately parochial. The whole, capitalized, seems to speak to a deep and abiding insecurity, perhaps a colonial legacy. How odd it would be to call Homer’s ‘Iliad’ or Rumi’s ‘Masnavi’ ‘the Great Eastern Mediterranean Poem’.” The colonial bit does, I think, get to the heart of the “American” part of the matter. American literature grew up in the shadow of British/English literature in a way in which Indian or Pakistani literature, say, did not. Nineteenth-century Americans saw Shakespeare as part of their heritage, and Pope, and Fielding, and Thackeray, and Dickens, and . . . hold on a minute, this is getting embarrassing. Let’s stop and boost our Cooper, and Hawthorne, and Melville. Look, there’s Moby-Dick — we can claim that as The Great American Novel.

Novels bearing the title The Great American Novel have been written by William Carlos Williams and Philip Roth. Williams’ short satire features a little Ford car falling in love with a Mack truck. Roth’s book is appropriately about the “Great American Pastime”, baseball. He analyses in his prologue some candidates for the title, The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, dismissing each in turn. He debates with Ernest Hemingway during a fishing trip and Hem insists that none of them is any good: he’ll be writing the Great American Novel himself: end of discussion. Of course Roth’s leading man (“Call me Smitty” as the book begins) keeps on with his attempt to do it himself, as exemplified by the book in front of us. (He fails.)

The term “Great American Novel” itself derives directly from the title of an 1868 essay by American novelist John William De Forest. It is an indication of the fickleness of fashion that Forest sets up the putative G.A.N. as an response to The Newcomes or Les Misérables.


* I refer here of course to real football, what Americans refer to as soccer, that puerile abbreviation, needed in English public schools to distinguish it from rugger — Association football as against Rugby football.


Despite of it’s slightly alarming use of an iron, this elementary procedure for removing water stains from your old books does appear to work.

(If you don’t see a video here, just click on the title of the post and view it in your browser.)

The Scottish Book Trust sends out a blog post by Danny Scott entitled “40 of the best songs inspired by books”. You can find it here. It comes with YouTube videos so that you can listen to all of the songs (U.S.rights permitting: I’ve posted alternate links here for the ones that won’t play in USA).

The songs (and the works they are based upon) are:

  1. Joni Mitchell’s “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” (Bellow: Henderson the Rain King)
  2. Art Garfunkel singing “Bright eyes” (Watership Down)
  3. Bob Dylan: “Hurricane” (The Sixteeth Round by Rubin Hurricane Carter)
  4. Simon & Garfunkel: “I am a Rock” (John Donne’s Meditation XVII)
  5. Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad” (The Grapes of Wrath)
  6. The Noisettes: “Atticus” (To Kill a Mockingbird)
  7. Bloc Party: “Song for Clay” (Less than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis)
  8. Mercury Rev: “The Dark is Rising” (Susan Cooper’s novel of the same title)
  9. The Zombies: “A Rose for Emily” (William Faulkner’s poem of the same title)
  10. The Bangles: “The Bell Jar” (Sylvia Plath’s novel)
  11. T’Pau: “China in your Hand” (Frankenstein) Alternate link
  12. Katy Perry: Firework” (On the Road)
  13. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (The Wizard of Oz)
  14. Lana del Rey: “Off to the Races” (Lolita)
  15. Fleetwood Mac: Rhiannon (Mary Leader: Triad)
  16. Leonard Nimoy: “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” (The Hobbit)
  17. The Beatles: Tomorrow Never Knows” (Psychedelic Experience by Timothy Leary & Richard Alpert) Alternate Link
  18. The Buggles: “Video Killed the Radio Star” (The Sound Sweep by J. G. Ballard) Alternate link
  19. Kate Bush “Wuthering Heights” (WutheringHeights)
  20. Bobby Womack: “Across 110th Street” (Across 110th Street by Wally Ferris)
  21. Chance the Rapper: “Same Drugs” (Peter Pan)
  22. Black Star: “Thieves in the Night” (Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye)
  23. Killer Mike: “Willie Burke Sherwood” (Lord of the Flies)
  24. Metallica: “For Whom The Bell Tolls” (For Whom The Bell Tolls)
  25. Manic Street Preachers: “Motorcycle Emptiness” (S. E. Hinton: Rumble Fish)
  26. Jethro Tull: “One Brown Mouse” (Burn’s To a Mouse)
  27. Radiohead: “Paranoid Android” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
  28. Led Zeppelin: “Ramble On” (Lord of the Rings)
  29. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: “Red Right Hand” (Paradise Lost)
  30. The Strokes: “Soma” (Brave New World)
  31. The Rolling Stones: “Sympathy for the Devil” (Bulgakov: Master and Margarita)
  32. Queen: “The Invisible Man” (H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man)
  33. The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: “The Tomahawk Kid” (Treasure Island)
  34. The Velvet Underground: “Venus in Furs” (Venus in Furs by Sachor-Masoch)
  35. Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side)
  36. Devo: “Whip It” (Gravity’s Rainbow)
  37. Jefferson Airplane: “White Rabbit” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
  38. Frightened Rabbit: “Backyard Skulls” (Christopher Brookmyre: Where the Bodies Are Buried)
  39. Belle & Sebastian: “I Fought in a War” (Salinger: For Esme — with Squalor and Love) Alternate link
  40. Blue Rose Code: “True Ways of Knowing” (Norman McCaig’s poem of the same title)

You are invited to vote for which one you think best, but there’s a deadline of 28 November at 5pm Scotland time, so get listening. I voted for the laddies from Selkirk.


In Greek mythology the Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (who personifies memory). They were also water nymphs.

According to Hesiod there were nine of them, protecting different arts. Varro, on the other hand, maintains that there were only three: Melete (practice), Mneme (memory) and Aoide (song). Hesiod’s nine are:

Calliope: muse of epic poetry, whose symbol is a wax writing tablet












Clio: muse of history, whose symbol is the scroll











Euterpe: muse of lyric poetry — symbol: the aulos, a Greek flute












Thalia: muse of comedy and pastoral poetry. Symbol — comic mask
















Erato: muse of love poetry: Symbol — cithara, a type of lyre











Melpomene: muse of tragedy. Symbol  — tragic mask










Polyhymnia: muse of sacred poetry, symbolized by a veil
















Terpsichore: muse of dance. Symbol — lyre













Urania: muse of astronomy. Symbol — globe and compass














King Pierus of Macedon named his nine daughters after the Muses and believed that they were better skilled than the nymphs themselves. The daughters, known as the Pierides, challenged the Muses to a singing contest, lost and were transformed into magpies, noted for their ugly song. This story takes us back to our use of the word pica, to mean a 12pt unit of type.

There are no doubt lots of books giving advice about sobriety — this post is not planning to deliver help in this area.

Here is video from Syracuse University Libraries showing how to save a water-damaged book. I bet it is harder than it looks here: “Repeat” no doubt conceals hours of work and a few rolls of paper towels. But the results do make it look worth while.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of the post in order to view it in your browser.

Link via The Digital Reader.

Book Riot brings us the unexpected news that football fans (soccer fans to you new worlders) of Lazio in Rome, guilty of much anti-Semitic chanting, are going to be read to before the start of home games. They will be being served up an extract from The Diary of Anne Frank. The Book Riot story carries a link to The Guardian‘s reporting. The choice of reading material appears to have been motivated by the Lazio fans’ posting of antisemitic stickers featuring Anne Frank at a recent game.

The reading will consist of these words “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.”

The anti-Semitism of Lazio fans is principally directed at their cross-town rivals, FC Roma, perceived (no doubt exaggeratedly) as drawing Jewish support. This problem was dealt with in England in 2013. Tottenham Hotspur’s fans had for many years self-identified as “the Yids”, despite having a mix of support not too different from other London clubs — including this transatlantic fan. The Jewish Chronicle has a thorough account of the history of this almost reverse discrimination chant. The use of “the Y-word” at Spurs games was disallowed and, after some kerfuffle, seems to be gone: though I have to confess I always find it hard to make out exactly what it is we are shouting in these chants. Racism in football is being addressed all around Europe: the action of the Lazio club is only noteworthy in their apparent belief in the power of reading. Good luck to them: I fear the cheering of fans may drown out any message.

The Daily Beast brings you The 5 Must-Read Books on Soccer. I would add Brian Glanville’s novel The Rise of Gerry Logan, and Ian Hamilton’s Gazza Agonistes. (If you need me to tell you that Gazza, Paul Gascoigne played for Spurs, maybe you needn’t bother.)

The highlighted words are from a song by Rick Astley.

Cunning work in 3rd period, though there are a couple of intentional typos to make it work. The teacher must be proud. Does this count as a poem? Probably.

Tweeted on World Teachers Day (5 October) by Book Week Scotland and Scottish Book Trust.

The Cloisters is an odd phenomenon. It’s a sort of medieval monastery building sitting in a park in northern Manhattan. It actually consists of bits of several medieval buildings from Europe most shipped over between 1934 and 1939 by John D. Rockefeller so that we benighted Murcans could get a bit of kulchur. At the same time Rockefeller bought up the real estate across the Hudson River in New Jersey, so that the view could remain perpetually pristine. In the picture above the Cloisters is that building in the middle distance showing its tower amidst all the trees in Fort Tryon Park. The buildings behind it are in the Bronx, and the cluster of buildings running down to the river in the far distance is downtown Yonkers.

The Cloisters is the medieval department of the Metropolitan Museum and houses their famous unicorn tapestry series along with a whole lot of other material, including four important illuminated manuscripts. The basis of the collection was the work of George Grey Barnard, acquired by John D. Rockefeller for the Met in 1925. (if you go to the Metropolitan Museum site linked to above, scroll down to the bottom and click on the link “History of the Met Cloisters” you’ll find a couple of videos, one showing workers building the Cloisters and the other, a fascinating 28-minute film showing the history and the demolition of the Fuentidueña apse.)

The exterior includes limestone and granite from a several European structures. There are in fact four complete cloisters in The Cloisters — from Saint Michel de Cuxa, Trie sur Baïse, Saint-Guilhem le Désert, and (probably) Bonnefont en Comminges. There are four Gothic windows from the refectory at Sens, and three chapels, including the apse from Fuentidueña — which is the museum’s largest room. Wikipedia gives an exhaustive listing. 

Apse from San Martin, Fuentidueña. This apse is on loan from the Spanish government and was not installed in New York till 1958-60









Jeff Peachey, a local bookbinder, has a blog on which he has posted about the 34 books and representations of books in the Cloisters.

Detail, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish. Photo Jeff Peachey

I’ve never noticed this, but apparently there’s also a library at the Cloisters (you need to make an appointment to visit) containing more than 15,000 volumes) used by museum staff for research.

Detail, The Dormition of the Virgin, Oak, German, Cologne, late 15th C. Photo Jeff Peachey


The hollowed out book is common enough for book historians to spend time debating the whys and wherefores. One of them has graphed it all out: from Vasil Zagorov via the SHARP listserv.

I don’t think there’s anything more to be said.

If you click on the diagram you’ll be able to see it more clearly.

See also Killer book


Here’s a quiz from Sporkle where you have to type the full title of sixteen books based on their consonants only. Note that there’s a time limit on this, so if you’re as slow a typist as I am, read the questions before you start.

Sporkle have lots of other quizzes which you can access by clicking on the “Literature”, “Authors” or “Books” links near the top. The Digital Reader sent a link to one (simpler I thought) from the same stable, presented by Mental Floss. Click on their “play another book quiz” link and you’ll be taken to Sporkle’s book quiz page where you can find 7,910 quizzes. Could this be more than you need?