Most helpful positive review
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A great gift for book-lovers of all types
on 6 October 2008
I always enjoy John Sutherland's writings having first come across his literary columns in The Guardian. I've already read his How to Read a Novel and The Boy Who Loved Books, so when Curiosities of Literature came out a month or two ago it was a bit of a "must have". In fact it turned out to be the perfect book to take on holiday, being very easy to dip into and always providing entertainment in odd moments reclaimed from the swimming pool or excursions.
At first glance it appears to be yet another of those attractively-produced little books aimed at the Christmas market - the sort of thing which is opened with a laugh but soon bores. However, anyone who loves books will find plenty to interest here, some light and inconsequential facts (the first spliff in literature, the shortest poem, the longest book etc), but even these, with Sutherland's immense store of knowledge, are set in a context which illuminate rather merely amuse. (and incidentally, the first spliff appears in Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and the longest book is Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and is about a million words long).
I loved the chapter on food, "Literary Baked Meats" which describes the gastronomic preferences of various writers and left me wanting to go to the Savoy to have an Omelette Arnold Bennett (a wish which is easily denied on discovering that it costs about £50 - and can also be made at home). Sutherland has found are many food-based "curiosities", not least discovering foods which were first mentioned in literature and then went on to become products in real-life. For example, the early science-fiction novel The Coming Race (1871) by Bulwer-Lytton shares the "hollow-earth" theme of Jules Verne's Journey To the Centre of the Earth, and describes a life-giving fluid under the earth's crust called "vril". Scottish manufacturer John Lawson Johnston saw a business opportunity there and added "Bov" (for beef) to the front of Bulwer-Lytton's "vril" and as they say, the rest is history.
IMG_4014 Stories like this kept me entertained while on holiday in France a couple of weeks ago. I enjoyed the chapter "Tools of the Trade" in which Sutherland gives his readers such information as the first book written on a typewriter (Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer) and the first authors to use computers (with Desmond Bagley and Arthur C Clarke being the main contenders). I have to say, that for the latter category, I remember reading an article by Terry Pratchett in a mid-80s computer magazine about his use of the Amstrad PCW.
There are 13 chapters in the book including Mammon in the Book Trade (interesting examples of produce placement in novels), Name Games (including pseudonyms and the stories behind their choice), Literary Records (worst novelist ever, longest time to write a book, most misquoted etc). These are not presented in list format but are well-written self-contained pieces. Sutherland acknowledges the help of Messrs Google and Xerox but I don't think anyone without Sutherland's vast literary knowledge would have been able to come up with such a comprehensive set of topics or researched them to the same depth as him. I found this a very satisfying read which will occupy an important place in my "books about books" category.