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4.2 out of 5 stars
Curiosities of Literature: A Book-lover's Anthology of Literary Erudition
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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.
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This is a fascinating wander through some of the stories of a variety of literary lions. The illustrations by Martin Rowson, give this book extra oomph and are a delight. What’s the link between the bad weather in Switzerland in 1816 and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? What can we know about what happened on Dorothea Brook’s honeymoon? These and a host of other pieces of gossip and speculation are a feature of this book.
What’s behind the choice of P H Newby’s decent but underwhelming novel for the very first Booker prize. Could it be something to do with one of the judges, Rebecca West, who was heard to remark, “If I read the sentence ‘he entered her’ once more I shall buy a doormat with “Welcome” on it for English fiction.
How many people have heard of Cynthia Plaster Caster, who formed a collection of plaster penises and breasts belonging to various rock stars. Who knows what for – but nevertheless, according to Ms Plaster Caster, everyone asks the same question – and gets the answer – Jimi Hendrix.
The suggestion is made that the real author of the Odyssey was Nausicaa, “a high-spirited and religious minded Sicilian girl “who saves her father’s throne from usurpation, herself from a distasteful marriage and her two younger brothers from butchery by boldly making things happen instead of sitting still and hoping for the best.” All according to none other than Robert Graves.
Equally interesting is the novel titles that were changed. First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice, Hearts Insurgent was changed to Jude The Obscure, Catch 18, became Catch 22, The Sisters became The Rainbow and Tote The Weary Load was thankfully re-christened as Gone With The Wind. These and many more snippets of interest are available in this useful and informative book.
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Books do furnish a room, eh? This is one of those books which one lays down and forgets to take up again, in Samuel Johnson's I hope immortal words. Ah well, it will doubtless fulfil an honourable role in many a smallest room. (And I don't mean being torn up.) There are occasional barbs amid the pomposity - a bit like my style, I sometimes think. 'So gothic are the horrors in [Titus Andronicus] that it ranks among [Shakespeare's] least blood-curdling.'

D'Israeli's original Curiosities I can remember losing overboard on a Florida jolly. Don't worry, though - it was the trusty Dover reprint selection, 'designed for years of use'!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 24 June 2010
This is another in the long line of "soundbite" books aimed at the market that craves trivia. Dealing with arcane literary matters -a book about books- there were a lot of pages I skipped as they were full of useless information. Useless information does come in handy for say, pub quizzes; my gripe is that the useless information presented here is written poorly.

Long lists of facts are boring as all lists from shopping to check inevitably are, hence some form of prose must be used. In this reader's eyes Sutherland's uncalled for political put downs and unfunny asides in each chapter detracts attention from the little curiosities he is imparting. When William Thackeray said The Virginians was the worst novel he's ever written, a friend retorted "the worst novel anyone wrote" Sutherland couldn't resist a witticism of his own. With friends like that, who needs critics?

Of course there are strange vignettes that will amuse and inform, however, most of this book summarises well known facts that book lovers already know. Either that wallpaper goes or I do. The Hemingway solution. John Ruskin's alleged fear of...we'll just call it hair. Too many "uncuriosities" for me.

This curio little book fails to deliver which is sad as it could have been a marvel. Instead it's another one for the QI generation lovers of scrap paper. The funniest thing in this book and I'm not being sarcastic is before the index pages in the sparse Some Indical Curiosities sections, there is the clever-

Best indical jest: William F. Buckley, in the complimentary copy of his latest book, inscribed by the index entry "Norman Mailer":

Hi! Norm! Knew you'd look here first!
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on 9 June 2015
I'm almost at the end of this book and like Sutherland's History of Literature, I don't want it to end. You need to have read a few books to get some of the references, but boy oh boy, it is a entertaining gallop. If Mr Sutherland wrote the phone book, I would read it.

Note: if you make it back to UCL Mr Sutherland, I'll buy you a pint in the Jeremy Bentham any day.
Drew de Soto
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on 14 December 2012
A very diverse compilation of anecdotal facts and figures pertaining to the world of writers throughout the ages. Interesting, and often amusing, it provides an entertaining, and at times shocking, insight into the world of the professional scribe.. A book offering light relief to otherwise serious readers.....
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on 20 June 2013
Well worth reading- an insight into the books. Entertaining, even if you have not read the books - encourages one to read them!
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A good read, particularly for a quick dip. Was amused to find my own scribblings included as a curiosity.
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1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2010
The title says it all. I found this book such a joy that I have bought another copy for my son who is also a dedicated book lover. I would recommend this to all who love books for their own sake.
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