Christmas is coming, and gifting is at the forefront of many minds. The latest tech changes from year to year, as do the latest fashions. But the gift that never seems to go out of style? A book.
The publishing world is at its busiest in the months leading up to Christmas. In Iceland, there is even a name for this: jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot) or “Christmas book flood”. The term has also come to refer to the Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve. As a result, a substantial portion of annual hardcover sales are during this period and nearly 850 new titles were released in 2019’s Icelandic book flood alone.
The UK’s annual Christmas book flood begins on Super Thursday: when publishers release a barrage of new titles just in time for the Christmas shopping rush. Some of the heavy hitters among the 426 hardcovers released on October 3 included Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, Jojo Moye’s The Giver of Stars, and MP Jess Phillips’ Truth to Power.
A long history of books as Christmas gifts
People were giving books as gifts even before words were ever put to paper. In one of his books of epigrams, the ancient Roman poet Martial recommended the works of famous Roman writers like “Ovid’s Metamorphoses on parchment” (animal skin) and “Livy (the Roman historian) in a single volume” (appearing in a scroll, on papyrus, or on parchment) as presents for the December festival of Saturnalia. Martial’s recommendations also included book-related items like “a book-case” and “a wooden book-covering”.
As Christmas grew more commercialised, the holiday became increasingly important for the book trade. In his Battle for Christmas, American history professor, Stephen Nissenbaum, argued that books were “on the cutting edge of a commercial Christmas, making up more than half of the earliest items advertised as Christmas gifts”, citing examples from the 18th century. By the Victorian era, periodicals were regularly featuring Christmas book reviews to promote book sales during the holidays.
One such article from a 1914 issue of the New York Times begins with the declaration that “the war is not the greatest thing in the world. It cannot destroy Christmas … The publishers are ready to help”. This article touts various “gift books” suitable for Christmas exchanges: “Sumptuous books, books in the making of which illustrator and printer and binder have exercise their art at its best.”
These 20th-century gift books follow from a tradition of sumptuous books given as holiday gifts. Medieval manuscripts, for example, were gifted for a range of religious, romantic, diplomatic, and festive reasons. A 2015 exhibition about medieval gift gifting at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, now archived online, further supports the understanding of manuscripts as gifts with personal and social value.
Books in today’s world
Writing about medieval manuscripts, Geert Claassens noted that a book – whether a medieval manuscript or a modern mass market paperback – always functions as both an object and a text. This observation is especially relevant in a world with e-books, which largely remove the “object” aspect of the book. However, a recent series of focus groups conducted by Laura Dietz at Anglia Ruskin University as part of a wider study about social perceptions of e-books has indicated that readers still prefer gifting and receiving print books over e-books. Maybe this is because it’s remarkably difficult to wrap an e-book and place it underneath the Christmas tree.
In a recent article for the international READ-IT project (Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool), media professor, Brigitte Ouvry-Vial, describes reading as “a social imaginary” that contributes to both personal and collective development. That is, reading has perceived benefits for both individuals and communities. However, she wrote:
The very motivation for non-prescribed reading has clearly shifted across time from an essentially knowledge-driven cognitive activity, to a broad information-driven cultural experience as well as a leisure activity.
This shift has also led to an association being made between being well-read or reading a lot with well-being, as books are more regularly valued according to the level of psychological uplift and self-healing they provide.
Books represent more than just knowledge; they’ve also taken on the role of highly personalised home decor. This is because books can say things about their owners. Likewise, the book you choose to give someone for Christmas can speak volumes about your relationship with that person. It’s not enough to just give someone a book and call it a day – it has to be the perfect choice.
For more modern options, YouTube is teeming with video reviews of the latest releases, as well as of “bookish” gifts to give in lieu of or alongside a book. There are also a variety of monthly book subscription boxes. By giving a book or book-related item in 2019, you’ll be contributing to a long and lovely tradition.
Public libraries embody the values of democracy by offering free access to knowledge. But the role of contemporary public libraries extends far beyond access to books.
Libraries are places for learning and discovery, forums for debate, galleries for exhibitions and events, and spaces for work and pleasure. As cultural centres and community hubs, libraries bring people together.
Such innovation is evident throughout Melbourne’s State Library Victoria which reopened this week to reveal the final phase of its Vision 2020 transformation. The transformation of Australia’s oldest – and now newest – library is cultural, social, economic and architectural.
State Library Victoria already holds a prominent place in Melbourne’s cultural and urban fabric. It is now ready for the future.
Less is more
Good civic architecture embodies the needs of the community it serves, amplifying and adapting to the activities and lived experiences in it.
Today, the revitalised heritage reading rooms remain majestic symbols with their large lofty ceiling and voluminous spaces with natural light
. People may wish to linger in these hushed traditional spaces and return.
This major redevelopment was entrusted to Australian design studio Architectus in partnership with Danish firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects. Their work demonstrates great restraint and respect for the original building, coupled with the creation of new spaces, connections and opportunities relevant to libraries of now and the future with a thoughtful approach of less is more.
Fine design details skilfully juxtapose the old and the new. New stone covers the historic and slippery marble stairs that head up from the Swanston Street foyer, the original treads visible at each edge. Long admired murals above the stairs are conserved.
Entering from Swanston Street, The Quad is the contemporary centerpiece, beyond the foyer of the library. It provides a welcome zone that invites people of all ages, interests and backgrounds to enjoy the wonder of learning. This invitation can be simple: a place to charge your phone, to talk with friends, to escape the weather. Simple activities that make you stop and pause, and want to venture further and find out more.
Ideas Quarter offers shared work space for budding entrepreneurs. Conversation Quarter is a tech-rich destination for sharing, connecting and broadcasting ideas. Create Quarter includes recording, mixing and editing facilities. Children’s Quarter is a playful multi-level realm for family exploration with age-specific areas and programs.
In this sequence of spaces, knowledge is everywhere, yet books are few.
The Quad is not the hushed or book-filled library experience you might expect. But those calmer spaces are still there, undisturbed by all this new activity thanks to careful acoustic design: a balance between the traditional and the new.
In the beautiful Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, the visitor catches glimpses of decorative paintwork in the Classical Greek style, discovered under layers of paint during the restoration.
Curiosity thrives in libraries, and the curious will uncover more.
Libraries are for people
In an increasingly digital age, what can public libraries offer that our smartphones and computers cannot?
They offer community.
Many Victorian voices informed the Vision 2020 project: community groups, library users, local residents, business, school students, parents. These voices inspired the enriched diversity of services and experiences. The Library Board, state government, benefactors, and community fundraising made the vision possible.
The Apostrophe Protection Society was set up in 2001 in the UK by retired journalist John Richards with the aim of “preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English Language”.
When I read that Richards had capitulated to the “ignorance and laziness” of those who wrongly used apostrophes, I toyed with the idea of resurrecting the society in Australia.
There may be no need. A six-fold increase in traffic to the website after the story broke caused the society’s webmaster to close the site down. He has promised to return the archive in the new year. Its survival is important. The apostrophe isn’t all that tricky to get your head around – and doing away with it won’t make language simpler.
Its – not it’s – big impact
British newspaper writer Harry Mount once wrote: “missing apostrophes is just ignorant and lazy”. He praised “the device that does so much with so little ink to point a sentence in the right direction”.
Richards’s desire to expel the intrusive greengrocer’s apostrophe (all those mango’s and tomato’s on special discount) mirrors that of Keith Waterhouse, the English columnist renowned as the author of classic comedy novel Billy Liar (1959) and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell – a 1989 play about the musings of a London journalist and alcoholic who is locked overnight in The Coach & Horses Soho pub.
Closer to home, the ABC’s Tiger Webb has previously dismissed the apostrophe. And
I have responded with an argument for its preservation (with many fine examples).
We need apostrophes in the right places in examples such as this: “She’d wed him in a shed if we’d agree to it” when letters are left out. And for possession: the “ant’s pants” or the “ants’ pants” and likewise the “bee’s knees” or the “bees’ knees”.
Writers’ rules for writers
Driving along William Street in the Brisbane CBD in 1990, I was horrified to notice painters putting the finishing touches to the signage for the about-to-be-opened Queensland Writers’ Centre. It was without an apostrophe. A phone call to the committee soon corrected that oversight and the apostrophe was used for a while, though the battle was lost in later years.
It’s now known as the Queensland Writers Centre and it hosts the Brisbane Writers Festival each year.
The writers’ festivals held in Byron Bay, Canberra, Melbourne, Hobart, and Wollongong are also sans apostrophe. Their respective management committees must have reached an agreement that the word “writers” is used in a descriptive or affiliative sense rather than as a possessive adjective. Thank goodness the committees of the writers’ festivals held in Sydney, Adelaide, the Northern Territory, and the Outback held out.
Possession in place names has caused controversy in the UK and here.
The UK’s National Land and Property Gazetteer, which registers street names, doesn’t require apostrophes in new names, but the rule doesn’t apply to existing signs. Devon and Birmingham unilaterally disposed of the possessive in in all street and road signs in 2009, though the Devon council backtracked shortly after.
South Australia has removed all apostrophes in place names. The policy of the NSW Geographic Names Board is to have no apostrophe in place names with a final “s”.
The Australian government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers lists guidelines for other states and the Northern Territory. It’s worth noting the last printed edition of this manual was produced in 2002. A new digital guide to government-endorsed grammar has been promised. At the time it was announced, the digital manual’s product manager imagined a time when:
Clear written communication would be valued and personal preference wouldn’t be an option because there’d be one credible ‘source of truth’ that stated the rules and provided the evidence for why.
Statements like this bode well for its future, though “rules” about language aren’t always black or white. The guide is now in its Beta version and set for release in 2020.
Don’t get it twisted
Within the ranks of those who do subscribe to the possessive apostrophe, I can count on Richard Nordquist for his authoritative guidance and The Chicago Manual of Style for support.
Perhaps the most contentious apostrophe point is how to make singular words ending in “s” possessive. Is it “Dickens’ novels” or “Dickens’s novels”?
The Chicago Manual of Style advocates the extra “s” alternative in all cases, as do I. Even in cases such as “Descartes’s dicta” and “Euripides’s tragedies”.
It is heartening to read related news that, whether or not John Richards’s apostrophe work continues, he might consider a campaign to save the comma from a similar fate.
“The use of the comma is appalling,” he told the BBC. “When I read some newspaper websites they just don’t understand what it is used for.”
This man, a punctuation champion in his 90s, is indomitable.
Christmas is just around the corner. If you’re wondering what to get your child, your friends’ children, your nieces, nephews or basically any very young person in your life – I highly recommend picture books.
Many people can remember a favourite book when they were a kid. Some of my favourites were the Berenstain Bears with Papa Bear trying, unsuccessfully, to teach his children how to ride a bike or gather honey.
Sadly, a 2011 report from the UK showed the number of young people who say they own a book is decreasing. The report also showed a clear relationship between receiving books as presents and reading ability.
Children who said they had never been given a book as a present were more likely to be reading below the expected level for their age.
There are lots of benefits of reading aloud to young children, including developing children’s language and print awareness. These include knowing that the squiggles on the page represent words, and that the words tell a story.
Such knowledge gives children a head start when they go on to reading at school.
Adults should discuss ideas in books with children, as they occur, as opposed to just reading a book from start to finish. Talking about the pictures, or what has happened, can lead to rich conversations and enhance language development.
The more words you know, the simpler it is to recognise them and comprehend the meaning of the text. Children who read more become better readers and more successful students.
2. Books can increase children’s maths and science skills
Picture books show children maths and science concepts through a story, which helps kids grasp them easier.
Some books (like How Many Legs and How Big is a Million) explicitly explore concepts such as numbers. Other stories, like the Three Little Pigs, have concepts embedded in them. Children can learn about the properties of materials when adults talk about the strength of hay, sticks and bricks.
A study in the Netherlands found kindergarten children who were read picture books, and were engaged in discussions of the maths concepts in the books, increased their maths performance, compared to a control group of children who weren’t read these books.
Early Learning STEM Australia has created a booklist which gives parents and teachers ideas for books that contain STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ideas. These include:
Dreaming Up, which contrasts children’s constructions with notable works of architecture.
3. Books are mirrors and windows
Nearly 30 years ago, children’s literature professor, Rudine Sims Bishop, wrote how books can be windows, through which we see other worlds. These windows can become sliding doors when we use our imaginations and become part of them.
Children need both types of books to understand people come from different cultures and have different ways of thinking and doing things. Books can show that children of all cultures are valued in society.
Children who never see themselves represented in books may feel marginalised. Unfortunately, the majority of books feature white children or animals, so many children only experience books as windows.
Children learn gender stereotypes from a very young age. Research shows by the age of six, girls are already less likely than boys to think girls are “really, really smart” and they begin to avoid activities thought to be for “really, really smart” children.
Picture books can challenge these and other stereotypes. Reading books that portray atypical behaviours such as girls playing with trucks or with girls in traditional male roles such as being doctors, scientists or engineers, can change children’s beliefs and activities.
The City of Monash in Melbourne has created a list of children’s picture books that promote gender equality and challenge gender stereotypes. This includes one of my favourite books, The Paperbag Princess, who saves herself from a dragon and decides not to marry the prince after he complains she is a mess.
5. Just having more books makes you more educated
A study that looked at data from 27 countries, including Australia, found children growing up in homes with many books got three years more education than children from bookless homes. This was independent of their parents’ education, occupation and class.
Adults need to model good reading habits and their enjoyment of reading. Giving children a love of reading can be the best present we ever give.
Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato, the old saying goes. And The Republic (c. 375 BCE), featuring Plato’s teacher Socrates in dialogue with several friends, is unquestionably central to Plato’s thought.
There are few subjects that Plato’s masterpiece does not touch or play on: political theory, education, myth, psychology, ethics, epistemology, cultural criticism, drama and comedy.
Little surprise then, that The Republic continues to be claimed by people with the most diverse convictions and agendas.
The Nazis pointed to the text’s seeming advocacy of eugenics. Yet Martin Luther King Jr nominated The Republic as the one book he would have taken to a deserted island, alongside the Bible.
Karl Popper famously accused The Republic of being a blueprint for illiberal, closed societies. Yet today, we can hear its echoes in the dazzling hyper-libertarian utopias envisaged by the Silicon Valley set.
The Republic’s famous allegory of the cave, which suggests that people’s ordinary sense of reality may be illusory, continues to shape our cultural imagination. It has been revisited again and again in literature, as well as in classic sci-fi films like The Matrix.
So, how can we make sense of this extraordinary text today?
Divided into ten “books”, the Republic is mostly taught as a text championing a series of radical prescriptions concerning the best city (polis) or regime (politeia).
At a certain point, Plato’s Socrates tells his young friends that the best city will be one in which the population is divided into three castes. On top will be a ruling caste of (yes) philosopher-guardians.
The second class will be “auxiliaries” or soldiers who will share everything in common, including wives and children. Indeed, Socrates depicts men and women as absolutely equal in all decisive senses. The third class are craftspeople and traders more recognisable to us today.
Less amusing is the proposed power of Socrates’ enlightened guardians to “breed” men and women as breeders selectively mate horses, dogs or fighting birds. The best warriors will get to sleep with the most beautiful women. There will be rigged “lotteries” so that the lesser-credentialed think it is just bad luck that they cannot “hook up” with the alphas.
Babies will be taken from their mothers by the rulers to a kind of state crèche. More ominously, children born with defects will be “hidden away” (katakrypsousin).
Everything is to be arranged so everyone can say “mine” about the same things. Each person will not know who their immediate biological family is. So, they will consider all their fellow-citizens as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers.
We can understand at this point why Nazi educationalists looked to The Republic as a precedent for some of their programs. Contemporary dreamers of a “dark enlightenment” wherein techy people “with high IQs” can “opt out” of wider society are also finding their way back to the future as depicted in The Republic Book V.
Why many other defenders of political liberty admire Plato’s text is less clear. But, as mentioned, there are many other things the book discusses than Socrates’ seemingly ideal “city in speech”.
The Republic’s principal concern is the question of what justice is. Does being just benefit the just persons themselves, or those whom they aid, or both? Is it good for a person to live a just life?
To answer, The Republic sets up a connection between types and parts of the human psyche (mind, soul) and different political systems. For some systems and people, honour and its pursuit is considered the highest good. In other societies, like our own, the pursuit of money as the means to pleasure, power, and satisfying desires is predominant.
But then, it is almost impossible to imagine how such a ruling elite could ever be created without great injustices. How everybody else could be “persuaded” to accept their claims to rule is also unclear – as is grasping just how Plato’s guardians could get ordinary citizens to give up their kids to the state for the greater good.
The cycle of regimes
Given these problems with the utopian interpretation of The Republic, some modern commentators take seriously Socrates’ repeated hints that we should consider what he is saying with a grain of salt.
In the wider context of the dialogue, Socrates presents the image of the three-caste city in order to provide his friends with an image of what a just individual soul would be like. Such a soul would be one in which wisdom rules over the desires for honour and pleasures. “Justice” would apparently be something like the inner harmony of the soul’s parts.
The famous “best city”, which has produced such divided reactions from commentators, is therefore a methodological model. If we can glimpse justice in something as big as a city, Socrates suggests, we might know what to look for in a person.
Small wonder that Socrates warns his friend: “you should know, Glaucon, that in my opinion, we will never get a precise answer using our present methods of argument”.
If there is a political message in The Republic at all, it is not about creating a recipe for the ideal city.
The true meaning of the Republic instead lies in how it stages the inescapable difficulties of political life, given what Isaiah Berlin called the crooked timber of human nature.
In fact, not just Socrates’ kallipolis (beautiful city), but each of the political regimes that he examines in The Republic prove flawed and unstable.
finding ways of spending money for themselves, then they stretch the laws relating to money-making, then they and their wives disobey the laws altogether.
This vision sounds oddly prophetic after the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8. Oligarchies hollow out the middle classes. By lending money at interest, they create “a considerable amount of drones and beggars in the city”. At a certain point, these “have-nots” rightly revolt. Democracies follow.
But Plato is no simple friend of democracies, either. Socrates asserts that the democratic citizens’ love of freedom tends to undermine traditional authorities. Teachers become afraid of students and parents of their children. As the generations mix, “the old stoop to play … and pleasantry, imitating the young for fear of appearing disagreeable and authoritarian …”
These passages have appeared prescient to many conservatives since the 60s.
Socrates’ claim that justice involves harming no one, and cultivating the knowledge to benefit others and oneself, sounds to the “beast-like” Thrasymachus as naive as it still sounds to “realists” today.
Glaucon and Adeimantus, amongst Socrates’ other companions, also wonder whether treating others justly is not a recipe for individual unhappiness. Anticipating Mr Tolkein, Glaucon puts Socrates’ view to the test by imagining a magic ring conferring invisibility. Wouldn’t even Socrates take advantage of this power to feather his own nest on the quiet?
Unbelievably, Socrates replies “no”.
The argumentative arc of The Republic in fact closes in book IX, at the end of the account of a tyrant’s life. Here, we are made to see that the tyrant’s amoral pursuit of egoistic appetites, which people often imagine as the best of all possible lives, is a recipe for misery and paranoia.
In one of the mathematical plays that dot the text, Socrates tells us that such a monomaniac will be exactly 729 times less happy than a wise person. For the author of The Republic, grinning with irony, it is exponentially better to be just than to live unjustly.
Only when we see this can we grasp why Plato spills so much ink in The Republic on how to educate a lover of wisdom, turning them away from the lures of money, fame, flattery and power. The famous images of the divided line, the cave, and the Good beyond being are each produced in the course of describing such an ideal education.
In the cave allegory mentioned above, Socrates depicts ordinary people in a cave, seated for their whole lives watching images projected on the walls by “hidden persuaders” (sophists, probably, and politicians). Not knowing any better, they assume that the images they see are real things. Plato’s image itself seems an uncanny anticipation of modern culture industries and today’s ubiquitous screen technologies.
Justice for such a person is voluntarily “going back down” into the cave to help others likewise turn their souls around. It is surely no mere chance that the first word of the Republic is Socrates telling us that “I went down yesterday to the Piraeus …”
How many of these words, shortlisted by The Macquarie Dictionary in its search for the 2019 Word of the Year, have you used? Anecdata, big minutes, cancel culture, cheese slaw, cleanskin, drought lot, eco-anxiety, flight shaming, healthwashing, hedonometer, mukbang, ngangkari, robodebt, silkpunk, thicc, and whataboutism?
I confess the only one on this list (whittled down from 75 words), that has passed my lips has been “cleanskin”, but I wasn’t referring to someone with no tattoos – the new definition.
I may not have used these shortlisted words, but I have certainly experienced the effect of some of them and can appreciate the value of others. (“Whataboutism”, for instance, a technique used “in responding to an accusation, criticism or difficult question in which an opposing accusation or criticism is raised”, will come in very handy when describing many politicians. )
The Macquarie Dictionary committee has chosen “cancel culture” as its Word of the Year. The term is used to describe community attitudes that
…call for or bring about the withdrawal of support from [for] a public figure, such as cancellation of an acting role, a ban on playing an artist’s music, removal from social media, etc., usually in response to an accusation of a socially unacceptable action or comment by the figure.
Unfortunately, there have been any number of recent examples in Australia of ostracism through “cancel culture”, whose cases have progressed to the courts. I hesitate to mention Geoffrey Rush here.
The committee chose “cancel culture” because it believes the term “captures an important aspect of the past year’s zeitgeist”.
In looking over the list, I’m not sure that I like any of these words. I think a couple of them are ridiculous, in particular “hedonometer”, an algorithm using language data from Twitter to analyse levels of happiness.
To qualify as Macquarie’s word of the year, a word must be newly added to the dictionary in that year or, as is the case with “cleanskin”, an old word with an additional new meaning.
Macquarie points out that it differs from other dictionaries, as some simply choose the most common word being searched, or most topical word, regardless of its status as “new”. The people at Cambridge Dictionary, which chose “upcycling” for 2019, relied on their Instagram account to make the call.
If the Macquarie committee had done this, its 2019 Word of the Year would have been “cheese slaw” (a salad of grated carrot, grated cheese, and mayonnaise), which it admits would have been a “niche and controversial” choice.
Macquarie has posted a photo on its website of a cheese slaw (stuffed into a sandwich), as well as an equally unappetising photo of a companion food word “mukbang”. A mukbang, by the way, describes a live online broadcast in which someone eats, often a large amount, while simultaneously speaking to their audience.
Criteria apart from “new” for Macquarie appear to be that a word is ubiquitous, timely, influential, and makes a valuable contribution to Australian English. So, does “cancel culture” qualify? Kind of.
Macquarie sorts the year’s new words into 15 categories, and one could spend an enjoyable time and several hours cruising through them: agriculture, arts, business, communications, eating and drinking, environment, fashion, health, politics, sport, and technology.
ngangkari and thicc
Two of the most interesting new additions – both runners-up as word of the year (along with eco-anxiety) – are “ngangkari”, adopted unaltered from Pitjantjatjara, for an Indigenous practitioner of bush medicine, and “thicc” from African American English, which “celebrates body positivity that does not conform to conventional white standards of beauty”.
The environment figures strongly in this year’s shortlist, in “eco-anxiety”, “flight shaming”, and “drought lot”. Still, the folk at Collins Dictionary named their Word of the Year for 2019 as “climate strike”. The Oxford Dictionary chose “climate emergency” as its Word of the Year.
The Macquarie Committee has now opened the voting for People’s Choice Word of the Year 2019. Only once in the past five years has the committee’s and the people’s choice aligned. In 2015, “captain’s call” won both categories.
You may wonder why the competition is even called “word of the year” when it comprises two words, or even three. In 2016 the people’s choice was “halal snack pack”. As the website points out, it’s the lexical unit of meaning that the committee considers, what’s called the “headword” in a dictionary.
In the meantime, if you are interested in chasing up the Macquarie shortlist and maybe voting, you have until midnight on Sunday December 8 to do so.
At the heart of every adult writer lies a novel they adored as a child. No wonder then so many try to write for kids themselves. So why do they often fail?
Perhaps it’s because, on the whole, adults are taught to write for adults, utilising the full power of the five regular senses – sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell – to evoke meaning in even the most trivial of everyday events.
This approach is less successful with younger readers, for one very simple reason: there are five other senses that speak more potently to them.
Consciously or unconsciously, successful writers use these other senses to hook young readers (and open their parents’ wallets) in ways that seem almost magical.
It’s not magical at all, though.
Here are the five story senses guaranteed to stir a child’s literary heart.
Everyone with kids in their lives knows the horror of a joke compendium: the same old gags we learned in childhood, repeated over and over, quickly lose appeal.
The only thing worse would be forcing kids to stop telling them.
It is easy to forget jokes are hilarious the first time around, and funny doesn’t mean trivial. Humourist Terry Pratchett understood a reader can learn just as much from a book that provokes a laugh as from one that doesn’t – and he was the bestselling UK author until J K Rowling came along.
Make a kid laugh and they’ll be a fan forever.
People develop a sense of fairness at a very early age, some studies suggesting it kicks in as early as 12 months. Who doesn’t love seeing justice done? For this reason, crime fiction is one of the biggest genres in the world – and kids are no different to adult readers.
Few people would seriously suggest a sense of justice should be drummed out of children, but it can definitely be quashed when parental authority is under assault. Kids therefore are constantly on the pointy end of injustice, or feel they are.
This is why Rowling takes Harry back to the despicable Dursleys at the end of every book. Exploiting the sense of justice ensures her readers never lose interest.
While not all kids will be into romantic love (The Princess Bride notwithstanding), they will have a keen sense of belonging. They have friends, family and pets in their lives, and stories engaging this sense helps them navigate these relationships, particularly when loss or denial is involved.
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer remains a classic because, beneath everything else, it is a story about a young boy finding his place in the world, and in people’s hearts.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also contains scenes of terrible peril, as does Doctor Who. Children love to be scared by fictional stories because in life, alas, many find themselves in very real peril. Fiction gives kids a safe way to activate their sense of danger, and maybe learn a life-saving strategy or two, as well.
The sense of danger is so fundamental to our psyche that it might actually be hardwired into us: the Moro, or “startle”, reflex is innate in healthy newborns.
There are limits, of course, but no one ever ever lost a young audience by trying to push them. (Parents are a different matter.)
Everyone will have some of these senses, but some people won’t have all of them. This sense, my personal favourite, is very hard to explain to someone who doesn’t possess it. It is the engine that drives fantasy and science fiction. When something makes a reader go “wow”, their sense of wonder has been engaged.
Kids understand this sense very well, because everything to them is big and new: just note how many synonyms they have for “awesome”. While it too may be drummed out of young people as they age, it can be revived under particular circumstances. Reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been one for many avid readers.
It is easy to forget The Hobbit predated this work, and, although no less awe-some, it was originally created for children.
These senses are just the start
Hefty doses of humour, justice, belonging, danger, and wonder will go some way towards compensating for deficiencies in other aspects of the writing craft. Children, and many adults, will often choose a good story badly written over a well-made dud.
This formula will also work for other media. Take Star Wars and Avengers movies, for example: both rich in the five story senses, and both part of the Disney stable, home to many other examples.
Any author wanting to pen a bestseller could do worse than start here. As always, though, there is no substitute for hard work – and luck.
Eliot’s “incognito” was shattered shortly after her first bestselling novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859. Critics were left marvelling not only that the author they collectively imagined to be a kindly country clergyman was a woman, but also that she was an atheist living openly with another woman’s husband.
In an age in which few women were educated or owned property, and few middle class women engaged in paid employment, Eliot overcame every obstacle.
And in the thousands of words that were to spill across the pages of the literary quarterlies about Eliot’s books, there was far less interest in salacious gossip than in the question of whether she had drawn a picture of the world as it “really” was.
No matter how much these 19th century – mostly male – critics attacked Eliot’s novels for their political and cultural heresies, it was obvious – indeed, astonishing – that they took them seriously as fundamentally important works.
A ‘great, horse-faced bluestocking’
Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, on November 22, 1819, the third daughter of Robert and Christiana Evans, Eliot was afforded the sort of education not usually granted to women in this period. She was not considered physically attractive, and her father believed this would severely limit her prospects of marriage.
In 1850, Eliot – then calling herself Marian Evans – moved from Coventry to London, determined to become a writer.
Just a few years before, she had published her English translation of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined. Notoriously, Strauss argued that the “miracles” of the New Testament were myths and fabrications. The Earl of Shaftesbury promptly castigated Eliot’s translation as “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”.
Eliot took up residence in the house of the radical publisher John Chapman, who appointed her assistant editor of the Westminster Review. She was deeply influenced by John Stuart Mill, particularly his groundbreaking essay on gender equality, Subjection of Women.
She sympathised with the 1848 revolutions on the continent. She held great hopes for women’s education. She supported female suffrage.
At this time, Eliot formed a series of attachments to married men, including Chapman and Herbert Spencer, before meeting the critic George Henry Lewes, with whom she shared a committed, life-long relationship.
Lewes was married to Agnes Jervis, with whom he had three children. Unlike other unconventional literary liaisons of the period, Lewes and Eliot did not keep their relationship a secret.
Like so many other men, Lewes was drawn to the luminosity of Eliot’s intelligence. She had an awesome curiosity, an endless appetite for ideas.
Henry James famously characterised her as “magnificently ugly, deliciously hideous”.
And yet in his snarky, entitled way he also marvelled at his reaction to the force of Eliot’s personality. “Behold me, literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking!”
Her practical humanism
In 1854, Eliot translated Ludwig Feurerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, in which he declared God to be a figment of the human imagination. Instead, he wanted to think about what he called “species being” – that is, to consider what it means to think from the standpoint of being human, of being part of the wider social fabric.
Feurerbach’s ideas were fundamental in shaping the practical humanism that forms the beating heart of Eliot’s novels.
Eliot’s social consciousness, her vivid critiques of capitalism, are keenly displayed in her 1861 novel about a linen weaver, Silas Marner, and her 1876 masterpiece Daniel Deronda – a sprawling tale about a fatally self-absorbed heroine, Gwendolen Harleth, and the easy, ingrained prejudice of British society against the Jews.
But it is their capaciousness – perhaps – that is the real theme of Eliot’s books. Her novels are held together by elaborate patterns of imagery, threads of gossip, networks of feeling and connection, linking character to character.
Background scenes of the social world are interwoven with the deeper dimensions of private life and even the fabric of human consciousness, so the novelistic structure reflects the fragile, web-like ties that hold society together.
Her characters’ motivations may be ego-satisfying, self-deceiving, or concealed, even from themselves, or all of these at once. And the tangled paradoxes they encounter as they journey through their novelistic worlds force readers to reassess themselves and their perspectives.
Nobody, in short, does honesty or frailty quite like Eliot. If you read her work, and really pay attention, you will likely find out things about yourself you didn’t know, and maybe would rather not.
As Virginia Woolf famously declared of Middlemarch, it is “one of the few English novels written for grown up people”.
Middlemarch – the greatest novel in the English language
Middlemarch was published serially in eight parts at two monthly intervals from December 1871. It went on sale in December 1872 as four volumes for two guineas, selling 8,500 copies. But it was only when the cheap edition went on sale in 1874 that the novel found its real audience, selling another 31,000 copies by 1878.
The story – like those found in all Eliot’s novels – is multifaceted. It revolves mostly around Dorothea Brooke, an heiress who makes a terrible marriage to Edward Casaubon, a dusty clergyman, and the character of Tertius Lydgate, a London-trained doctor who wants to bring modern medicine to the Midlands, but chooses an unsuitable wife.
But the deeper theme of Middlemarch is the moral drama around the interaction between character and social environment that is fundamental to contemporary appreciations of 19th century realism – but was often merely puzzling to Victorian critics.
They loved the scale of the novel’s social panorama, “like a portrait gallery” that has been “photographed from the life”; they even came to see that it had, as the Times put it, a “philosophical power”. But they did not immediately grasp that it was Eliot’s most important book. They bemoaned it was not as “delightful” as Adam Bede, her earlier bucolic tale about – among other things – seduction, infanticide, class and education.
In Middlemarch, Dorothea has money; unlike in Austen, there is no threat of penury hanging over her head. Indeed, there is no need for her to marry at all. And yet she does.
She has freedom, up to a point. But her largeness of soul is circumscribed by narrowness of opportunity. Nor is provincial society entirely to blame. Dorothea yearns to do something; to achieve something; but she knows not what. This is her – and our own – tragedy.
When Dorothea, in all her married misery, is confronted by an extraordinary vision of a suffering human society, we encounter one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful passages in Eliot’s ouevre. She writes,
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
This is the anguish that lurks in dark corners of Eliot’s novels – it is the measure of her greatness, and of our struggle to read her.
Dorothea’s quest for a substantial and meaningful life has resonated with the sensibilities of successive generations of feminists. How is she to achieve something? Where should she put her energies? How can she affect the lives of others?
We are all of us “Dorotheas”; all tragically yearning for something. As Virginia Woolf put it, Dorothea and the rest of Eliot’s heroines feel “a demand for something — they scarcely know what — for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence.”