Just the Worst: A Celebration of Banned Book Week

In 1637, English lawyer and colonist Thomas Morton, founder of the Merrymount colony that eventually became Quincy, Massachusetts, published a book that was not very complimentary of his Puritan neighbors.

According to Morton, who had been pretty successful in establishing trade and good relations with the Native Americans in the vicinity of his colony, the Puritans were generally unfair, dishonest, abusive, and hateful. He also had some unflattering nicknames for them.

Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to writing his book, Morton had attempted to expel the Puritans from Massachusetts with a lawsuit that rested on their alleged misrepresentation of their purpose for establishing a colony in the first place. They’d done so in a different location than originally planned as well, and in a location to which someone else technically held the rights. He won the suit.

The lawsuit had come on the tail of a particularly nasty encounter between Morton and his neighbors.  Despite his own traditional Anglican beliefs, Morton engaged in his fair share of passive aggressive paganistic behavior of the variety that would drive a Puritan mad. When he erected an eighty-foot-tall maypole and invited his Algonquin friends over for a raging kegger, the highly offended Puritans arrested him, cut down his maypole, burned down his colony, and left him to die stranded on a rocky, coastal island.

Fortunately, Morton had managed to make himself some friends by throwing the best parties and, you know, not slaughtering them, and so he survived the ordeal. If the legal decision that revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been enforced, that might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. And so, Morton wrote his offensive book.

New English Canaan, which today is considered a historically significant literary work of the American colonial period, consists of three parts. The first is a primarily positive view of Native American customs. The second is an account of the natural history of Massachusetts. And the third is a satirical look at why Puritans are just the worst.

Image by Pretty Sleepy Art from Pixabay

The book was originally published in the Netherlands, where anti-English books of the day tended to be published. Not all that surprisingly, most of the copies were initially seized and destroyed by the English government. The few copies that managed to circulate were quickly condemned and banned by the Puritans, making New English Canaan the first banned book in America.  

Today there are just sixteen original copies of Morton’s book in existence, though it has been republished with plenty of scholarly criticism and is freely available on the internet. I haven’t read it, but honestly, the mere fact that it was banned makes me kind of want to pick it up.

I might just do so, in honor of Banned Book Week. The annual event is celebrated this week by the American Library Association and by intelligent, thoughtful people everywhere who are not the busy-body mom crusaders across the nation that have for some reason decided they are responsible for monitoring the reading material of everyone else’s children.  

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I feel compelled, too, as long as I am standing up here on my soapbox, to state that such people shout on each side of the political aisle, as is evidenced by the practice of revenge banning being attempted at a truly alarming rate.

At this point I am so frustrated by the book banners I, probably unfairly, assume that if given the chance they would cut down a maypole, burn down a school, and banish all the librarians to die alone on a rocky, coastal island. All in the noble name of keeping children safe from just the kind of intellectual stimulation and freedom of thought that could help them to develop into critical thinkers. Just the worst.

Thank heavens for the majority of parents who recognize that censorship belongs in their private homes and families, along with their noses. Thank heavens, too, for the librarians who, too often without support from their district administrators, are standing up for the freedom to read. And shame on the politicians who are not.

Happy Banned Book Week to all!

A Conflict Among the Stars

Three hundred fourteen years ago today on March 31, 1708, well-known astrologist, physician, and former shoemaker John Partridge died right on schedule. The prediction of his “infallible death” had been published earlier that year in a letter written by a man called Isaac Bickerstaff, who then at the prescribed date, also published a clever rhyming eulogy.

Turns out the pen really is mightier than the slap.

No one was more surprised by the timely demise of Partridge than the man himself who returned home from a trip shortly after the report to discover that even those he knew well had heard and were so convinced by the news that he had a hard time persuading them that he was, in fact, still alive. When he wrote an article explaining that he had not died, Bickerstaff quickly answered with an admonition for the rogue that would write so insensitively of the dead.

As mean-spirited as Bickerstaff’s pronouncement might have been, from one perspective, Partridge may have earned it. He was a self-proclaimed reformer of astrology who published an annual almanac in which he regularly and erroneously predicted the deaths of renowned individuals. He was also somewhat outspoken against the Church and in his 1708 almanac had referred satirically to it as the “infallible Church.”

Partridge, who lived another six or seven years after Swift’s pen killed him off, and whose precise date of death is unknown, which might also be Swift’s fault. He’d probably have preferred a public slap. See page for author, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The barb settled uncomfortably on Isaac Bickerstaff, which was a pseudonym of the highly offended writer, satirist, astrology skeptic, and Anglican cleric Jonathan Swift. In the moment, Swift decided against charging the stage and slapping the spit out of Partridge and instead chose to give the man a taste of his own medicine by predicting his death.

Swift’s revenge was definitely effective. After the news spread that the prediction had been spot on, Partridge coincidentally also found himself in a dispute with his publisher that led to the discontinuation of his almanac for a few years. When he finally did attempt to re-emerge, he found his reputation damaged beyond repair. Some astrology enthusiasts even suggest that it was this prank of Swift’s that led to a general discrediting of the entire field that lasted through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.

So, maybe the satirist who once modestly proposed that the most sensible solution to Irish poverty was to eat babies, pushed it a little too far this time. Comedy can, after all, be a hit or miss, depending on context and perspective and perhaps whether or not one’s spouse has a penchant for the dramatic and a mean right slap.

It’s A Big Conspiracy

In August of 1926, The Yale Review published a little sci-fi story that I suspect had much further-reaching consequences than the editors imagined it would. But some astute readers were paying attention and quietly began spreading the highly instructive message of “The Tissue-Culture King” by Julian Huxley.

Julian Huxley. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Huxley tells the tale of a group of scientifically minded explorers that, lost in the African bush, follows a two-headed toad and stumbles into a giant engaged in worshipping a microscope slide. The party soon becomes acquainted with a previously unknown kingdom with a highly developed culture of blood and ancestor worship.

Also in the kingdom is another white man who had been captured fifteen years earlier and, with the aid of the King’s most important advisor, had managed to exploit the people’s religious rites for the purpose of scientific experimentation, thus giving rise to the worship of tissue cultures as the means to immortality for the king and beloved elders.

I admit that so far, the story sounds a little far-fetched, but I think it’s safe to say that’s just what They want us to think. Late in the story, just about the time this reader’s eyes want to glaze over, another type of ongoing research is introduced. The captured scientist reveals that, with the enthusiastic support of the King’s man, he has been experimenting with hypnosis and telepathy.

Excited at the possibilities of the experiments, the narrator begins to assist and soon the two are able, with group hypnotic suggestion, to send instructions in a wave over the entire kingdom. At this point the narrator thinks they might use their newfound scientific powers to put the kingdom to sleep and make their escape, if only they can find a way to shield themselves from the hypnotic suggestion.

Rory112233, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To us modern readers, the answer is clear. The captives shield themselves from the telepathic waves by donning hats made of metal foil. It works, at least until they assume they are far enough away to abandon their protective headgear, only to discover that the King’s evil henchman has overcome and amended their suggestion to a simple, irresistible command to return.

Experts on tin foil hats, who are extremely difficult to find and are rarely willing to make public comments, suggest that Huxley’s fairly obscure story is the smoking gun in the truth about where the foil hat phenomenon came from in the first place. Of course, they also admit that could be a lie fed to us by the government. The world may never know.

What we do know, thanks to the incredibly important work of some MIT grad students who allegedly have too much time on their hands, is that there may be more to the story. In 2005, the students released the results of a groundbreaking and mind-shattering study which revealed that aluminum foil hats actually amplify the radio frequency bands allocated for use by the US government.

Image by iirliinnaa, via Pixabay.

It’s worth noting that the MIT researchers did not receive so much as a whiff of interest from the Nobel Prize committee. And I suspect we all know why that might be.

This leaves us, I think, with some questions. First, if Julian Huxley’s story really is the first mention of the protective nature of tin foil hats, then how did that idea first occur to him? Could it have been fed to him telepathically by a government intent on amplifying the private thoughts of its citizens? Was Huxley, instead, involved in the elaborate plan? Was the editorial staff of The Yale Review complicit? Is the MIT study merely an attempt at misdirection by the Feds?

Or did Julian Huxley never intend for any of his readers to actually wear tin foil hats? And was the point of “The Tissue-Culture King” exactly as stated in the story itself, that the increase of scientific knowledge and the power it may lend to those who would yield it for their personal gain, might carry with it some consequences well worth considering? Eh, that seems a little far-fetched.

Who Really Wrote this Blog Post?

On December 23, 1823, The Sentinel newspaper in Troy, New York published an anonymous little Christmas poem called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The poem contained charming imagery, a memorable rhyming pattern, and the names of all eight of Santa’s original red-nose-phobic reindeer.

The public loved it. It pervaded the holiday. It cemented the image of Santa Claus as a right jolly old elf. And it came to be known popularly by its first line: “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

You know your “long-ago trifle” has made it big when it’s honored on a postage stamp. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Designed by Stevan Dohanos., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But while the poem took on a life of its own for several years, no one knew who wrote it. Then in 1837, poet and editor Charles Fenno Hoffman included it in the collection The New York Book of Poetry and attributed it to his buddy Clement Clarke Moore. Moore, in turn, included the poem in his own 1844 collection, oh-so-cleverly titled Poems, stating that though it was only a “long-ago trifle” of a poem, he was pleased enough to take credit for it.

And everyone was happy with that until a few years later when there arose such a clatter. The daughter of American Revolution veteran, surveyor, farmer, and amateur poet Henry Livingston said she believed her father had written the poem in 1808 and that the original handwritten copy of it had been lost to a housefire. By this time Livingston was deceased and had never claimed authorship of the poem. And though he was related to Clement Moore’s wife, as far as anyone knows, the two men never met one another.

Sounds a little suspect to me, but there are quite a few experts who, in comparing the style of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with that of each man, believe there may be a case to be made. Also, Moore was allegedly something of an overly serious curmudgeon who didn’t care particularly for children or charming things like dancing sugarplums.

I don’t know that he looks all that curmudgeonly. Engraved by J. W. Evans, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, unconvinced experts who still believe Moore to be the author, suggest this is an unfair assessment of a man who could be playful and jolly when he had a mind to, and who, more importantly, wasn’t an especially creative poet. His literary style tended to be imitative rather than original and so, really, he could have written like anyone, even an obscure relative of his wife.

Then too, The New Brunswick Museum has in its collection a version of the poem handwritten in 1824 by a member of the Odell family, who were friends of the Moores. It’s assumed one of the Odells wrote down a version of the poem from memory after hearing it recited by the poet himself.

While this isn’t conclusive evidence, a handwritten note can tell you a lot, as I was recently informed by the attendance secretary at my oldest son’s high school. Through no fault of my son’s own, he had to be a little late getting to school a few days ago and showed up part way through his first hour class.

Thinking it might be an excusable tardy, I had written and signed a note of explanation before sending him on his way. Later that day, the secretary called me to confirm that I was, in fact, the one who had written the note, since “anyone can write a note.” When I confirmed that I was, she chuckled and told me that she had actually assumed so, because most of their students couldn’t write in cursive, which is both sad and hilarious.

Another note you can be reasonably sure my son didn’t write.

It was also not conclusive evidence that my son hadn’t forged his excuse. He didn’t, and I really don’t think he ever would. I’m also happy to report that he can write in cursive, though not nearly as legibly as I can, so I don’t think he’d ever get away with it if he wanted to try.

I suspect that Clement Moore wasn’t the sort to take credit for another man’s work, either, especially for a poem he thought of as a trifle. If only we had that 1808 copy of the poem handwritten by Henry Livingston. If we did, we might discover that it was written in cursive, which if nothing else, would serve as pretty good evidence that the poem was not written by a twenty-first century high school student.

Thank you to Herb from The Haps With Herb, who was kind enough to share this really funny clip in the comments of one of my posts a few weeks back when I mentioned that kids should learn cursive so they can read old timey documents.

Charles Dickens is in Good Company

On the last day of May in 1837, avid readers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were disappointed. The story had been published in installments by Chapman & Hall at the end of every month since March of 1836 and by this time was approaching a print run of 40,000 for each part. It was perhaps the first truly and widely popular piece of literature to hit the London scene, spawning bootlegged copies, theatrical renditions, circulating jokes, and a wide range of merchandise.

Charles Dickens was living the dream. He’d hit the publishing market just right and given the reading public exactly what it wanted at exactly the moment it wanted it. Then in May of 1837, as it so often does, life happened and Dickens missed a deadline when his sister-in-law Mary, to whom he was close, died suddenly. He also missed a deadline for a new serial novel called Oliver Twist.

A story written by a some guy named Charles Dickens, who, much like author Sarah Angleton, was known to serialize his novels. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens did manage to publish a section of his Pickwick Papers the following month and an anxious readership was happy to get it. The work, which was later published as a single novel, originally reached its readers as a series of nineteen issues published over twenty months.

The idea of the serial novel wasn’t entirely new, but it hit its stride with Dickens who had begun his career publishing his Sketches by Boz in various newspapers before they were later bundled into a single work.

Readers liked the format because it was cheaper to buy a short piece than a full novel. Publishers liked it because it was cheaper and less risky to produce short pieces, which allowed them to respond to market demand rather than try to predict it. And lots of authors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century did it, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. All the cool kids were doing it.

Some guy named Charles Dickens who published serialized novels, similarly to author Sarah Angleton. National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then serial fiction kind of fell out of fashion, with only the occasional experimental foray by a well-known author here or there. But now it’s making a comeback. It’s happening on blogs, of course, and podcasts, and now on more and more online publishing platforms. Even Amazon decided to get a piece of the action.

Last week saw the launch of Amazon’s newest self-publishing platform Kindle Vella. For now, it’s only available in the US and I don’t entirely understand how it works just yet, but basically, it’s an app to which authors publish their stories an “episode” at a time, and readers cash in-app coins they’ve purchased in order to continue with the next episode. I think it’s supposed to be interactive, too. That’s the part I don’t have quite figured out yet.

But I assume I will figure it out before too long, because I have begun publishing a story on Vella. This novel-in-pieces is a little different than my others that got published as plain ol’ books. Those are historical novels that most likely appeal to the kind of people who like to read historical novels, which I know because I’m so great at marketing.  Or at least they probably appeal to people who like history or novels or who have ever had a conversation with my mom or dad.

This story might not appeal to the same crowd. It’s a dystopian, sci fi story I started cooking up several years ago, in which, unsurprisingly, there is a teenage girl who is destined to become a hero and do heroic things, fall in love and possibly become embroiled in a love triangle, and learn something about herself on the way to saving the world.

A serialized novel by Sarah Angleton (aka S. M. Angleton)

Probably. But as I post episodes and get reader feedback, I suppose it could always change a little bit. What I can state with a fair amount of confidence is that I am on schedule to upload episodes far enough in advance that if life happens, as it did last week when I failed to post in this space, new episodes should still drop each Wednesday.

Here’s the description you will find on Vella:

Built on the ashes of St. Louis, Becca’s dystopian world centers on a dark faith dedicated to pushing the limits of the human lifespan. After an unnaturally prolonged childhood, she faces the ritual that will determine her vocation and launch her initiation into adulthood, a ritual that two years prior, her brother sacrificed his life to protest. When Becca’s own ceremony takes a wrong turn, she finds herself in a world preserved by lies and a tangled history that threatens everyone she loves.

If you’re into that kind of thing, please check it out at this link to read the first few episodes for free. It’s an experiment, but I’m kind of excited about it. Maybe by the time I get to the last episode, 40,000 people will be waiting anxiously for it. It might spawn jokes, theatrical renditions, bootlegged copies, and a wide range of merchandise. Someday, I might even publish it as a book. The only thing I know for certain is that I have now joined the ranks of Charles Dickens. And I think he’s in pretty good company.

In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

Today represents an important day in the annals of history. I could even say it is hugely significant, or momentous, or earthshaking.  It is a day I believe should be a major holiday of great consequence. Because today is the 169th anniversary of the publication of the life’s work of Peter Mark Roget.

The guy had spent a long career as a physician, tutor, and inventor. He’d written numerous papers on health and physiology, served twenty-one years as secretary of the Royal Society, and was the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information. But his biggest, most consequential contribution that should not be overlooked, sneezed at, or considered chopped liver resulted from an early habit of making lists.

Beginning in 1805, at the age of sixteen, Roget started making lists of words and phrases, grouping them together into a classification system based on their rough meanings. By the time he retired from medicine in 1840, he had a really long list. I mean like it was extensive and far-reaching and at times probably seemed interminable.  

And so, he spent his retirement collecting, gathering, assembling, and scraping together a book for “those who are painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition.” He called it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, because as good as he was with words, Roget was not so swell with snappy titles.

Today it’s just known as Roget’s International Thesaurus. It’s in its eighth edition and has been continuously in print, aiding and assisting, helping and supporting painfully groping writers since April 29, 1852.

Even Sylvia Plath, who was pretty good with words, once referred to her thesaurus as the book “which [she] would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, or exaggerate that much, or hyperbolize in quite that way, but I do appreciate a good thesaurus. I own three and I use them extensively.

One is an early edition from 1866, great for looking up nineteenth century phraseology, circumlocution, or idiocism. The second is a pocket edition, useful for carrying in a purse, bag, clutch, or tote. And the third is the seventh edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, which contains more than 325,000 words and phrases and consists of 1,282 pages of sizeable, colossal, and monumental awesomeness.

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit obsessive, affected, or overly-stricken by my plethora, or in other words superabundance of thesauri (or thesauruses because apparently either is acceptable) and with the contribution to the world of lexicography by Peter Mark Roget. But as a painfully groping writer, I plan to celebrate, make merry, and paint the town red. I might even splurge and buy myself an eighth edition Roget’s International Thesaurus just to mark the day.

Every Day is Book Day

In 1930 King Alfonso XIII declared April 23 to be National Book Day in Spain. This proclamation changed the date from the previously celebrated Book Day on October 7, the alleged birthday of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes because it’s always nicer to walk around open-air book markets in the spring. Actually, it sounds pretty nice to me either way and given that my corner of the world saw a good snowfall earlier this week, I might quibble. But I’m not from Spain.

This only known portrait of Miguel de Cervantes may not even be him at all, as his name was added centuries later and there is no way to authenticate it. Attributed to Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

April 23 worked out pretty well because that’s when Cervantes allegedly died. It’s also the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, and Georgia, as well as Catalonia and the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo and some other places too. George is the protector of lovers and the patron saint of soldiers and chivalry and dragon-fighting. Or something. I’m also not Catholic.

I have read that it has become tradition in Spain to give a rose to a lady on April 23, and probably because the celebration has been mashed together with Book Day, a book to a gentleman. I certainly can’t speak for all the ladies out there, but I know I’d rather have a book.

And since 1995, that would be an appropriate gift in at least a hundred countries because that’s when the United Nations declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day.

Picture of Miguel de Cervantes excited about World Book Day. Or at least it could be. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

It’s a good day for it. It’s the anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, who is a pretty famous writer, as well as Cervantes, also famous. Some people even claim that Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, was the world’s first novel.

Personally, I think that’s a pretty tough argument to make since it wasn’t even the first novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, and is predated by thousands of years of narrative writing from around the world, and is a little bit of a spoof of the other novel-like works of chivalric romance that were popular at the time. Perhaps it would be fair to say it was the world’s first critically acclaimed novel. I don’t know. I’m certainly no professional literary critic.

But I do celebrate books. I’m actually happy to celebrate books any day of the year, and I look forward to joining with many nations of the world to celebrate books tomorrow. I suggest getting your sweetheart a rose and a book, or perhaps a book about roses if that’s your thing. Then curl up on the couch together and read. That might be even better than browsing an open-air book market on a spring day, or at least it will be if you get a stupid surprise snow shower.

Don’t Steal My Thunder! (Please)

John Dennis was not a very successful playwright in the early days of the 18th century. I would say he wasn’t very good, but as I’ve not actually read any of his plays, I can’t fairly make that claim. What I do know is that if it remembers him at all, history tends to paint him as more of a critic, and also maybe a little bit of a hothead who was once dismissed from college for wounding a fellow student with a sword.

He looks so grumpy because someone stole his thunder. Jan (John) Vandergucht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was also apparently a pretty clever problem solver because when, in 1704, he needed a good rumble of thunder for the production of his play Appius and Virginia, at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, Dennis came up with a new way to make it happen.

I do enjoy a good rumble of thunder. My family and I have lived in the St. Louis area in the Midwestern US for about eight years now, but our previous home was in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest where we were for just a few years.

We loved a lot about that area. We really did. The friendly people, the warmer temperatures, the ability to grow almost anything without much effort were all great things, not to mention that we could be either playing in the snow on a mountain or fishing for crab on a beach in a little more than an hour on a Saturday morning.

But it almost never thundered. Oh, it rained. A lot. It rained those tiny, swirling droplets that coat everything and against which an umbrella is useless. It just didn’t really storm. Having grown up in the Midwest where the rain means business and often comes with high winds, hail, huge flashes of lighting, and loud cracks of thunder, I missed it.

By the way, you’re probably saying it wrong. As they like to explain in the valley, “It’s Will-AM-ette (D@*n it!).” by Olichel, via Pixabay

The only time I remember a storm when we lived on the west coast, I slept through it and only knew about it because a friend mentioned how terrible the thunder had been the previous night. Now, her terrible thunder was probably my low, distant rumble that makes me smile because I know it’s finally really springtime. But in that moment, I found myself getting desperately homesick. I held it together, but I was pretty upset at the thought. I kind of wanted to yell that she’d stolen my thunder.

I realize that’s not what the phrase “to steal one’s thunder” is really about. It refers to showing someone up, which my friend most certainly didn’t do just by waking up to a storm I slept through. But the phrase didn’t start out that way.

When Appius and Virginia, a play you’ve probably never heard of, despite its innovative thunder, got pulled early and replaced with a production of Macbeth, which you probably have heard of, John Dennis decided to pick himself up and go to the show.

Since you’ve heard of it, you may recall that Macbeth begins with three witches and some thunder and lightning. This particular production of Macbeth, at the Drury Theatre, began with innovative thunder using the same technique recently developed by John Dennis.

The story goes that he jumped up from the audience and declared something to the effect of (not all sources agree on the precise wording): “You won’t run my play, but you’ll steal my thunder!”

I suspect he used some harsher words, too, but whatever he said it is generally accepted that John Dennis coined the idiom “to steal one’s thunder.”

I realize that fun stories like this one are rarely true, but I haven’t been able to find anyone shouting on the internet that it’s not. Frankly, I’m not willing to expend more effort than a quick and shoddy Google search on this particular project, partly because I don’t want to be party to anyone figuratively stealing Dennis’s thunder.

No matter what the phrase might mean today, for frustrated playwright John Dennis and for this midwestern gal, it will always feel just a little bit literal. I’m happy to report that this past week I celebrated having my thunder back. My part of the world experienced its first good thunderstorm of the season. It sounded just like spring is supposed to sound. It sounded like home.

The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe used funds from her own substantial fortune to have a Victorian cottage built in Hartford, Connecticut, the state of her birth. The house had twelve rooms, plumbing, heating, a study for her husband, and no dedicated writing space for a woman who penned at least ten novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is one of the most influential books of all time and which today is often disingenuously criticized for not being written by a woman with the progressive ideological lens of 2020.

And then in 1874, Stowe got a new neighbor. Missouri-born Samuel Clemens built a much larger, more ostentatious home with twenty-five rooms, sweeping international décor, and a man cave of sorts that contained both a dedicated writing desk and a billiards table. As you may recall, he also wrote a few books, including several you probably read in school and that were written at his home in Hartford between billiards games.

Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Eric Inglert, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/
by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would want to make the move from beautiful Missouri to Connecticut, a state that as far as I could tell on my one brief visit boasts little more than Lyme disease and the kind of astronomical day-use state park fees that inspire picnics in gas station parking lots. But I wouldn’t mind a billiards table in my dedicated writing space. Also, I’d like to add my apologies if you are from Connecticut. I’m sure it has its charms.

It did for neighbors Harriet and Samuel and a whole host of movers, shakers, and big thinkers who made Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood their home. If the history books can be believed (and I am by no means suggesting they can) these were not neighbors who necessarily agreed all the time. But it was allegedly a pretty congenial place to be with open doors, stimulating conversations, and high-minded and friendly debates among respectful friends.

In the time my family and I have lived in my current neighborhood, for about seven-and-a-half years now, our street has tried to foster a similar sense of congeniality. We hold an annual Christmas open house, occasionally set up outdoor movie screenings in the cul-de-sac, wave from front porches, freely loan and borrow tools, and visit one another’s garage sales. I’m even trying to get comfortable with a neighbor popping in for a visit without feeling too flustered by last night’s dishes stacked up in the sink. I have a lousy maid. Also, she’s me.

Despite the fact that we don’t all vote the same or worship the same or root for the same baseball team (There’s just one inexplicable Yankees holdout. We’re working on it.), our neighborhood is a good place to be. And this week is particularly exciting because we have new next-door neighbors that just officially moved in.

It was a comfort knowing there were so many gnomes keeping watch over the neighborhood. And a little bit disturbing. PublicDomainPictures, via Pixabay.

Well, this isn’t entirely exciting, because the neighbor who moved out was a kind ninety-something-year-old obsessed with yard tchotchkes. I think I might kind of miss the flamingos, and gnomes, and frogs, and angels, and butterflies.

I’ll miss my quirky neighbor, too, who always attended the Christmas party in a brightly colored suit, snake-skin boots, and bling that would make most rappers jealous. He’s moved on to a retirement facility closer to his family, where he’ll get along much better than he did alone in a big house.

The place will be different without him, but our new neighbors seem nice. They are ultra-marathoners and vegans, and they have two very small dogs that compensate for their diminutive size with over-large attitudes. The newcomers have also have expressed in no uncertain terms that they are not fans of garden gnomes. I’m going to have to rethink the contents of the welcome basket.

But even though I think running is stupid, I love a good steak, and I have a relatively mild-mannered, medium-sized dog who right now is losing his mind over the canine interlopers next door, I think these new folks are going to fit right in. In fact, I already pretty much love them.

Oh, hey! If you’re not busy tomorrow night (10/9), check out Friday Night Reads presented by Title Wave Books, Revised and author Ryan P. Freeman, who will do a Facebook live reading from my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.