- Signs Nan is getting too much heating
- Cognitive benefits for children of having an imagination Christmas and/or birthday
- Do the children really need that many school shoes?
- It’s character building – reasons to give up on civilization and live in the pop tent for four to six months
- Watching A Current Affair stories for tips on how to teach the children to steal on your behalf
- Funding the family vacation and starting a family cock-fighting syndicate in your own backyard
- Scrumping – lists of houses with apple trees and climbable fences
- Encouraging creativity – sewing patterns for fashioning clothes from potato sacks
- IKEA and Squatters rights – tips for hiding in the show room so you can sleep there after hours
- Teaching ANZAC spirit – having a war rationing themed April to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WW1
- Alternative birthday entertainment – why you getting drunk and dancing for the guest’s amusement is much better than hiring a clown
- Utilizing the neighbors’ sprinklers for bathing and saving big coin on your next water bill
- Alternatives for buying your teenager a phone such as two cans attached via a string
- Your next family pet – handy hints on catching a possum from the park
- The everyman guide to doing your own dentistry
- Bathroom saving hacks: manually de-plying the toilet paper and keeping the towels pristine through air-drying
- Food budgeting – getting a Dominos tattoo and free pizza for life
- Only suckers spend money on sleeping bags – saving on your next camping trip by pulling a Bear Grylls
In the 2008 book The Economy of Prestige, Professor James F. English wrote that newly established literary awards are able to solidify their necessity through ‘reference to some failing or lack in its more esteemed predecessor’. Nowhere is this assertion more noticeable than Australia’s female literary award The Stella Prize.
Awarded for the first time in 2013, The Stella Prize emerged as a direct response to under representation of female writers among literary award winners; in particular the Miles Franklin Award – regarded as one of Australia’s most prestigious literary awards.
The Stella Prize’s objective is to annually celebrate the best book to emerge from either fiction or nonfiction, by an Australian woman that year, and through this create a greater public interest in books written by women.
It is comparable to other prizes such as Britain’s Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction – which also attempts to counter perceived flaws in longstanding judging practices.
However, what makes James F English’s statement particularly applicable to The Stella Prize is the importance of its name and the overt point it makes.
By naming the prize after the founder of The Miles Franklin Award, Stella ‘Miles’ Franklin, The Stella Prize is making a clever point about the need for a literary award specifically for women.
The name is simultaneously associating the award with a deeply respected female author as well as a jab at The Miles Franklin Award. It’s a powerful public reminder that Miles Franklin was a woman who needed to go by a pen-name for her work to be taken seriously, and it implies that The Miles Franklin Award has not fulfilled her vision.
According to one of the founders, Sophie Cunningham, The Stella Prize’s creation is necessary because,
The Stella Prize highlights subjectivity and flaws, and makes us question literary awards as a means of determining prestige. Yet, by creating a new award in the hope of bolstering the presence of female writers, The Stella Prize demonstrates that literary awards remain a prominent feature in book culture and do have an effect on the success of a book.
There are a few animal/show-business type questions which do occasionally cross my mind.
I wonder whether a consequence of literally every animal sport film, is that every single sport rule-book now includes a 30 page list of species that are barred from joining the team.
I naively wonder whether there is even the smallest possibility that Babe is still alive.
I wonder just how many kangeroo paw-sticks the sickos who made the show Skippy needed for the close-up handshake scenes.
And, much as I would rather not think about it, I do wonder whether Tarzan actually dated gorillas before Jane showed up.
Also what do you think was the ultimate objective the bird’s had when they took over in The Birds? Were they just sick of our shit? Could the humans have thrown a truckload of hot chips to appease them?
So on that note, let’s talk about a few classic animal narratives within literature, and the unanswered questions they too have left me with.
Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)
This is one of those books where it is quite obvious why people are made to read it in school – the Stalinist parallels are about as a subtle as a brick to the face.
Also given how much I relate to Mollie the horse – who is swayed to go back to a regular farm because she misses sugar-cubes – it’s probably definitely a sign that I’m really not a team player.
Anyway I’m sure you’re all probably loosely familiar with this allegory of the farm animal’s failed attempt at a utopia where all animals are equal.
The animals choose to overthrow their oppressive captor, Mr Jones, following the vision of Old Major – a respected elderly prize pig – for a future where all animals are free from humans.
Personally though, the one detail which I really don’t think get’s the attention it deserves is just how nonchalant all the humans in this book seem to be about how bloody fast the animals in this book can organize group projects and teach themselves to read.
Mr Jones spends a good deal of the book sitting around the pub having a moan, like this kind of thing is somehow not that absurd. And I kept thinking when the other surrounding farmers pull down the windmill that the animals have been building for two years, wouldn’t you just be impressed that the animals built something? Why hasn’t the press visited?
Charlotte’s Web (E.B White, 1952)
This book raises another question I’ve long had – how come Wilbur’s the one who gets famous instead of the spider who can write in English for some reason?
Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972) *spoilers
Watership Down is surprising. Initially you assume that you’re not going to get that emotionally invested in the lives of some fictional rabbits – you’re not a child and the film Marley and Me failed to move you because you’re a cold hearted monster. But then you massively do, to the point where you’re not sure you’ll be ok if Fiver doesn’t survive.
It’s just such a beautifully dark story, the main rabbits are just such a noble little squad who’ve got each other’s backs – and fuck being a rabbit would be pretty grim, even if all the characters have really adorable names like Strawberry and Thistle.
To roughly sum up, a small group of rabbits flee their warren because Fiver has the capacity to sense when something bad is about to happen, and he has this vision of ‘blood across the warren’. It details the dangers the group face beyond the warren they’ve known their whole life, and – in the later half of novel – how establishing their own warren is reliant on challenging the leadership of a totalitarian-style warren.
The Black Cat (Edgar Allan Poe, 1843)
Similar to The Tell-Tale Heart, where killing someone because their glass eye got to you sometimes seemed like an overreaction, The Black Cat‘s narrator is bitten one night by his wife’s cat, Pluto, and therefore decides to act rationally and gouge one of the poor cat’s eyes out with a penknife.
Following this shitty thing he’s done, every time the narrator looks at the cat – who’s now naturally terrified of him – he feels remorse, so he decides to be super rational again and murder the cat. Then big surprise he starts to feel even more ravaged by guilt, so he brings another cat home for his wife and see’s his being nice to the new cat as some kind of atonement.
Then, I shit you not, he get’s angry at this cat because it reminds the narrator still of Pluto, and in an attempt to kill the cat with an axe he accidentally kills his wife (it’s really hard to feel sorry for this guy).
Anyway to cut a long story short, he entombs his wife behind a brick-wall in the basement, and just when he thinks he’s gotten away with it the police hear a cat meowing behind the brick-wall and find Pluto alive standing on the head of his dead wife’s corpse. Pluto somehow came back to life to grass on him and it feels great that karma has weirdly been served.
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’
This classic idiom is both a general caution against placing too much importance on appearance, yet equally a literal warning to prospective readers of the deceptive power a great cover design can hold.
By suggesting that the front cover can influence a choice in reading material that would not otherwise have been made, this saying assigns a pivotal role to the cover and rests on the assumption that this is the first point of contact a reader will have with a text.
However to what extent does this expression reflect the true reality of the publishing industry’s current reliance on strong cover designs to communicate with potential consumers?
While image is focal to a book’s marketability; the front cover in itself is just one of several potential touchpoints of varying significance which can determine how a book is discovered by the target demographic and whether they choose to buy it.
The aesthetic appeal of a book, and especially its cover, is undeniably important. Yet whether the book’s external qualities are the primary influence directing readers to select certain titles over others is a contentious assertion; particularly when one considers the heightened significance of brand identity in a culture that is becoming progressively orientated towards online and social media platforms.
The traditional retail practice of impulsively buying a book in a bricks and mortar bookshop – based on the book’s front cover and the plot summary written on the back cover – is just one means of discovery, and a marketing strategy for any title must be more nuanced than sole dependence on this single book purchasing pattern.
One can even contend that in the current literary landscape, the ‘cover’ that this popular axiom is referring to has expanded and now refers to the whole image carefully cultivated by a title’s unique promotional strategy prior to its release – which includes both the author’s personal brand as well as that of the publishing house.
As each book’s identity is a formation of multiple components – such as genre, author/s, unique selling points (USP), target demographic and purpose – how a title is marketed, and what marking strategies are more likely to be successful, will fluctuate depending on each of these elements.
Furthermore, while a front cover has multiple roles, its ultimate objective is to market the book it is packaging to a specified audience. Thus, the front cover’s significance – as with every marketing device – will also invariably be subject to variation rather than holding an identical level of automatic importance for every book.
Another vital consideration is that a prospective reader’s first impression is arguably more likely to be influenced by promotional efforts prior to the book’s launch rather than the title’s front cover. This is due to the importance that generating awareness of the book prior to its launch has as part of the publishing cycle, with the majority of newly released titles immediately facing heavy competition on top of a short ‘shelf-life’ in bookshops (approximately six to eight weeks).
According to data collated by reader analytics company, Jellybooks, there are eight major motivations for ‘buying a specific book’. Listed below, these include:
- ‘Entertain me now’
- ‘Entertain me in the future’
- ‘Inform me’ – A book which educates/helps fulfil an aspiration.
- ‘Obligation’ – Referring to a book one is assigned to read such as for book-clubs, study or alternatively books which are unanimously considered literary classics.
- ‘Social Pressure’ – A book one feels compelled to read as ‘everyone else’ is currently reading it.
- ‘Make me look smart’ – owning/reading a book for the symbolic status attached to that particular title.
- ‘Impulse’ – Being in a particular state of mind, or being stimulated by environmental factors such as being inspired to buy a book at a literary event or in a Museum gift shop.
These motivations highlight how diverse and subjective the rationale driving each book purchase decision can be. But while the front and back cover can also act as further attributes bolstering any one of these justifications, the fact that the book’s appearance is not listed as a separate motivation suggests that – at least consciously – the front cover is a secondary interest compared to what the consumer plans to get out of this purchase/reading experience.
Another study examining reading patterns which also indicates the front cover’s general secondary status, is a comparative analysis conducted by book review site, Goodreads, of two similar novels – Gillian Fylnn’s Gone Girl and Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.
This extensive survey involved collecting responses from readers who had read one of these titles, and its responses showed that while factors relating to trusted recommendations such as ‘reviews’ or ‘word of mouth’ were the highest ranking motivations amongst readers of both novels, the front cover and blurb ranked last – and only for Night Circus – as a direct motivation for readers.
Parallels shared between these separate studies, offer invaluable insight into what inspires a reader to choose a certain book when faced with an abundance of choice. Furthermore, the affirmed value held by ‘word of mouth’ in both cases is testament to how vital developing an initial awareness is to inspiring subsequent sales of the book.
Interpreting these studies however, as evidence that the book’s appearance is irrelevant would be far too simplistic. Rather, the marginal influence the front cover holds as a motivational tool, reveals that broadly readers are understandably more prompted by content and what a trusted opinion promises the text will deliver.
Developing positive word of mouth is imperative, yet the front cover also plays a meaningful role in this as an extension/representation of established brands – particularly that of the author and publishing house.
Although this function is less obvious than the front cover’s equally crucial role of introducing the book’s plot, tone and own identity; the cover’s ability to immediately visually connect a book to – often a multitude of – recognized brand identities in the mind of the consumer reveals how deeply interconnected motivational touchpoints are, and how difficult it is to analyse the effectiveness of one as a wholly separate entity.
As pointed out by David Pearson in Books as History, a ‘successful design is most effective when the user of the object does not stop to think about what makes it work; it just does’. A reader may not have full awareness of the extent to which the front and back cover’s contents influenced their final decision to buy a book, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean the book’s packaging was not a factor.
A marketing strategy for any title must be nuanced, particularly due to the entrenched presence of online and social media platforms, yet while a book’s cover design is not the focal means of discovery, the various brand identities the cover will embody are pivotal to reaching and connecting with prospective readers.
So I only just found out recently that my home town’s Mill Market – which might I add was already pretty wicked to begin with – inexplicably has a bunch of Wolf Creek props round the back – -WHAT? There’s just so many follow-up questions! Who was the weirdo/hero who bequeathed that shit to the city of Ballarat of all places? And why am I just hearing this news now?
We’ll talk about something else now, I’m just still reeling from that discovery.
Anyway speaking of Australian films, there’s one out at the moment called Ladies in Black (and sadly no, the guy from Packed to the Rafters doesn’t get tortured in this one too – what a bitter let down. I SAT THROUGH THAT SHIT FOR NOTHING!!!!!!!!!*), which is based on the first novel of Madeleine St John – the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.
Now I’ve not read The Women in Black – it looks a bit too heart-warming for my taste (plus a whole book of Sydney people making snooty remarks about how shit Melbourne is? Yeah nah), but it has got me thinking about other great Australian reads which I devoured and that are definitely worth a gander, they’re in no particular order.
Heat and Light (Ellen van Neerven, 2014)
Normally short story collections aren’t really my cup of tea, but each of these felt equally enthralling and left me wanting to know more. Plus there’s the right amount of shared consistency connecting these stories, which is impressive given how stand-alone they otherwise appear.
Split into three sections – ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’ – each story regardless of section touches on themes relating to sexuality, contemporary aboriginal culture, family, heritage and identity.
In particular, the way the longest story in the collection, ‘Water’ , utilises fantasy to explore heritage and roots is striking and poetic.
Axiomatic (Maria Tumarkin, 2018)
This is a confession, but embarrassingly prior to reading this I wasn’t actually familiar with Maria Tumarkin. The whole reason I bought Axiomatic was that it happens to have a really gorgeous cover – so yeah I’m that shallow.
Anyway unavoidably, since going into Tumarkin’s most recent book completely fresh, it has sparked the big search for every other bit of writing she’s ever done that’s out there.
Segmented into five popular axioms – such as ‘Time Heals all Wounds’ and ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’ – each saying acts as a springboard into its own distinct rumination of an important – and often overlooked – issue within Australian society.
Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, 2018)
If I ever have a son I’m making sure he reads this. No exaggeration, calling it powerful just seems like a huge understatement, and everyone I know who’s read this, pulled an all-nighter and finished it in two days tops.
Eggshell Skull is the debut memoir of Bri Lee, which details her time working as a judge’s associate for the Queensland District Court – an experience which gradually forces Lee to fully recognize and confront her own long-repressed memory of the sexual abuse that she herself had survived as a child.
It’s exhausting and heartbreaking reading the extent of sexual abuse cases Lee is faced with during – what was only a year – of her time working for the District Court.
And reading it, I was just in complete awe of the strength it must have taken to be witnessing on a daily-basis, what the process looks like for victims who are brave enough to make an official complaint, and how frequently the legal system fails to achieve justice, and yet in spite of that still being prepared to seek accountability.
(Again embarrassingly, I also solely bought this book for the cover, having no idea what it was on – it’s a pretty great cover to be fair)
Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey, 1988)
Basically, the main reason I connected with this book when I read it five years ago was that the character Oscar Hopkins reminds me a touch of myself – in that he’s a fidgety, painfully socially awkward type who get’s too easily fixated on things (Oscar has a strict and conservative upbringing raised by a Plymouth Brethren minister though, so I don’t know what my excuse is).
Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier are two misfits who find each other on a ship heading from England to Sydney. Oscar is a trainee Anglican minister and Lucinda is the owner of a lucrative glass factory in Sydney, and their friendship essentially revolves around their mutual obsession with risk and gambling.
Without giving spoilers, the two things I particularly loved about this book were,
- the underlying influence of timing, and how the two characters lived such parallel lives and could have been perfect for each other, yet they are ultimately victims of both circumstance and their own inherent shyness (shit sorry that is a big spoiler – I suck)
- that whole idea of a church made of glass seems pretty cool – you could work on your tan and do some praising!!!
[*how shit was Packed to the Rafters though?]
There’s this story that Charles Dickens once found Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lying outside on the lawn, crying inconsolably over one bad review. I really love that this happened. It just seems like such a timeless thing a beautifully delicate, creative type might do.
In his day, Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875) was one of the most renowned writers in Europe. And his life is still often viewed as a rags-to-riches fairy tale in itself.
The son of a cobbler and an illiterate washerwoman, who very likely suffered dyslexia and who struggled with a crippling fear that he was unlovable, yet whose stories remain widely recognised and beloved well over 200 years after his death, and who could clearly handle some creative criticism in a dignified and think-skinned manner – who better to seek some guidance from?
So I want to have a ponder over the lessons Hans bestowed upon us as children. Because to be honest it’s still beyond me what the moral of the Emperors New Clothes is – you can’t get arrested for indecent exposure if you make a convincing argument when the cops show up that you’re wearing pants of the mind?
The Ugly Duckling
Sometimes puberty is kind and people get better looking with age, so be nice just to be on the safe side. This is a terrible lesson.
The Little Mermaid
Seriously though its important to learn how to negotiate a good trade. Your voice and every time you walk it feels like your treading on sharp knives? Jesus do a bit of haggling! I know you really want that human soul but at least try to get it down to say… trading your sense of smell and every time you walk it feels like your treading on lego?
The Wild Swans
Shirts knitted from stinging nettles you found in cemetery will somehow help your swan brothers return to human form. Don’t try and make the best of a bad situation and teach them some kind of sign language, and get them to do your evil bidding like an army of flying monkeys. No, keep your dignity and be that odd one on the street with 11 swans who yells at the neighbours when they give you judgey glares, that they’re the ones who’ll look stupid just as soon as your done knitting your collection of stinging nettle attire.
The Red Shoes
Cursed by a mysterious man – as punishment for wearing red shoes to church – Karen’s shoes are bound to her feet and force her into a tortuous loop of continual dancing. Wee bit harsh there. What about that time I wore whatever shoes I wanted on a Sunday and didn’t go to church for 25 years in a row? Section me out mysterious beard man – I look embarrassing when I dance too so it’d really hit me hard.
The Princess and the Pea
You can win a Prince’s heart by being very vocal about your extremely first world problems. It’s a pea get over it! If you’re having a rough nights sleep in a stranger’s bed cause you can feel something under their mattress, and in the end it just turns out to be a pea you’ve dodged a potentially awkward and gross bullet and you should be very very thankful.
Toads are bastards who will attempt to kidnap you in the dead of night and force you into an arranged marriage with their toad son.
Your shadow is such a prick. Just don’t trust that guy – he’s shady (GET IT!!!)
The Flying Trunk
Don’t ride in your enchanted flying trunk and let off fireworks! Drive sensibly, this is why we can’t have nice things!!!
Given the last time I wrote a childhood book drinking games post it was 2016, I feel I need to stress again to be a responsible adult and wait til the children in your care are asleep before you get the books out and prepare to par-tay!
Any of the Charlie and Lola books (Lauren Child)
- Drink anytime Lola has a whinge or is a bit of a pain in the ass
- Drink whenever a real picture is used within the illustrations or when the font is put in bold for emphasis
- Drink if at any point you start to wonder where Charlie and Lola’s parents are at
- Drink if there’s an overall lesson about sharing
- Drink any time these words are utilised: extremely, absolutely, actually
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Judith Viorst)
- Drink anytime something shitty happens to Alexander
- Drink if he threatens to move to Timbuktu
- Drink whenever Alexander says it’s a ‘terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day’
- Drink whenever the characters are wearing an outfit that’s quite seventies
Come Back, Amelia Bedelia (Peggy Parish)
- Drink anytime Amelia fucks up
- Drink if the exact way she fucks up is somehow a pun
- Drink if her job search in this book gets you reminiscing about your own periods of unemployment and you start to feel sorry for Amelia
- Drink every time she gets hired for a job she’d probably need to have proper training for – that’s why she keeps screwing things up! This isn’t all on her!!!
Any of the Maisy Mouse books (Lucy Cousins)
- Drink anytime Maisy is referred to in the third person
- Drink if Charlie and Talluhlah also rock up
- Drink if at any point you start to wonder how old Maisy is meant to be; given that in some stories she’s in the city alone or using the oven unsupervised yet in others she’s playing doctors and her bedtime’s 7.30pm
- Drink anytime she brushes her teeth or there’s an actual illustration of her sitting on the John (there’s more than one)
The Velvelteen Rabbit (Margery Williams)
- Drink anytime the Velvelteen Rabbit stresses that he’s real a rabbit
- Drink if you start to wonder why the other toys are being so shitty about the fact that he’s not a real rabbit – you’re not real either!!!!
- Drink to ease the pain when things start to get real and the kid suddenly has scarlet fever
Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown)
- Drink if there’s a rhyme
- Drink if the red balloon that appears gets you thinking about IT
- Drink anytime an animals mentioned
- Drink whenever you think ‘a bowl full of mush’ doesn’t sound particularly appetizing
- Drink whenever the word ‘goodnight’ is said (yeah this is a pretty harsh rule. You probably will need your stomach pumped)
Lord Byron’s notorious facility for pulling both female and male love interests is one of those bits of historical trivia that I find a little perplexing – I mean, I’ve seen his portrait, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, maybe back in that century the dating pool was very slim pickings?
But I shouldn’t go underestimating the allure a talented wordsmith can have – the Romantic poet truly had the Kavorka, with his clubfoot only adding to his irresistible aura.
By his own account, Byron slept with over 200 women in the later years of his life, while living in exile in Venice (‘by his own account’ though does immediately sound a wee bit suspect, I mean by my own account this is still the year I’m definitely getting into shape).
Byron’s half-sister, Augusta, wasn’t even immune to his charm, with the two having an affair – and subsequently a child – during his very short-lived marriage to Annabella Milbanke (this was gross and scandalous even by early 19th century standards).
Byron’s life of just 36 years is defined not only by the poetry he left behind, but equally by the enthralling, usually sordid, details of his personal life. For me though, the most fascinating thing about Lord Byron’s existence is the life of daughter he never knew, Ada Lovelace – a pioneer in mathematics and computer programming in a time when women could not attend university in Britain.
Weeks following the birth of Augusta Ada Byron on December 10 1815 (more commonly known by her middle name for obvious reasons. Love how she has the same name as the sister, way to rub it in Byron!!), Annabella left with her daughter to her parents house after Lord Byron’s famous threat to his wife that he would ‘do everything wicked’. The poet would never see either of them again, with the separation sparking such intense public scandal that Byron left Britain in disgrace in 1816.
Frightened that artistic pursuits would have a destructive influence on Ada, and that she would want to follow a destructive path like her famous father, Annabella encouraged Ada into mathematics by hiring several tutors. And at 17 Ada would meet mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, through who she began being tutored by University of London professor, Augustus de Morgan.
Babbage became Ada’s mentor, and when asked to translate an article on Babbage’s design for the ‘analytical engine’, her extensive notes she added to the original document are now considered the first examples of a working software program ever published. What’s makes this even more incredible is that the machinery that could run the code wouldn’t be invented for another century.
What I love about Ada’s story is that she is remembered in her own right, in a field that is completely distinct from the field Lord Byron has reverence in. She is buried next to him in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottingham, yet in life they were strangers and had minds that – from an outside perspective – seem like they shared little in common.
[That cover image is Vincent Price in the film adaption of The Mask of the Red Death. Yes, he really does look like a massive weirdo in that costume – like the person who is ruining your otherwise rocking halloween party]
In life, there are countless moments of varying significance that, for whatever reason, manage to get themselves forever lost to ol’ father time. For me personally, the absent memory of how that mysterious dalmatian ended up on top of me the night drinking Yahtzee was invented is the first thing that springs to my mind (or rather DOESN’T spring to mind! It’s about to get a wee bit Twilight Zone-esque up in here!).
It’s usually a rather mundane reality that naturally not every single moment in history was recorded, and that memory is incapable of preserving every lived minute in pristine condition. Yet when it concerns a figure like Edgar Allan Poe – who never really needed any additional assistance coming across enigmatic – this commonplace phenomena becomes ten-fold more enthralling.
Poe’s unexplained disappearance and his subsequent mysterious death four days after he was found, is one of those historical subjects that gets me a little bit excited – as a fan of both some Poe trivia and a good mystery. Plus it makes me wonder whether fellow crime writer Agatha Christie ever thought of Poe during her own eleven day disappearance in 1926.
On 7 October 1849, at Washington College Hospital – in a cell-room normally reserved for drunks; the gorgeous 19th century equivalent of Robert Smith allegedly whispered ‘Lord help my poor soul’ before dying at age 40 – ten days before he was to marry what would have his second wife, fellow widow Elmira Royster Shelton.
Officially Poe death was documented as ‘congestion of the brain’, however an autopsy was never conducted, and as his doctor had denied all visitors, only one account exists of the state Poe was in leading up to his death.
During Poe’s four days of hospitalisation he was in a complete state of delirium, incapable of accounting what had happened since he was last seen on 27 September leaving Richmond, Virginia for an editing job in Philadelphia.
Poe had been found 3 October outside a tavern and polling location (it was during an election), by a printer named Joseph Walker who recognised the famous poet. Poe gave Walker the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, and Walker got in contact with Snodgrass asking for help,
There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.
What’s particularly fascinating though, is that Poe was found dressed in clothes that were not his, yet still in possession of a sword cane he had nicked from a friend of his called Dr John Carter, who Poe had visited the night before he left Richmond (to be fair if any of my friends owned an actual sword cane I would “accidentally” leave their house with it too. I would so “accidentally” conceal it under my jacket somehow).
There are numerous theories that attempt to give an explanation on what precisely caused Poe’s death – such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcoholism, a brain tumor. Or more sinister explanations such as murder, or being victim of ‘cooping’ – a type of voter fraud where gangs would kidnap victims and force them to repeatedly vote in various disguises.
What’s annoys me the most though about this never to be solved riddle is that a medium in the 1860s claimed Poe’s ghost wrote poetry through her – if you could communicate with Poe’s ghost, WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HIM TO EXPLAIN HIS DEATH SO THAT IT ISN’T A TOPIC OF DEBATE 169 YEARS AFTER IT HAPPENED?????
There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like – it is someone who is dorky, socially awkward or an introvert, and it rests on an assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.
Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading do not do justice to its long held rebellious reputation.
The past is scattered with instances where people feared the consequences of reading. And one particularly fascinating example of this is the Victorian era’s deep concern over the reading habits of women.
There is a 19th century painting by Antoine Wiertz’s called The Reader of Novels (1853), where a mysterious demon-like creature tempts a young naked reader with another book. This portrayal of a female reader, is a reflection of a prevalent Victorian anxiety – what increased female literacy would mean for their ‘purity’ and for larger society.
During this period in Europe, particularly in Britain, the female reader was the topic of public moral debate because she was a new kind of reader. Major shifts meant formerly untouched demographics, including women, now had much higher literacy levels and greater access to reading material. These changes included the rise of public libraries, and primary school education becoming compulsory.
Warnings to fathers and husbands, of the corruptive power novel reading had over women, was not a new thing; with humanist philosopher Juan Luis Vives cautioning in 1540,
‘A woman should beware of all these books, like as of serpents or snakes’
However this quantitative level of females regularly reading was unknown up until this point.
Embedded preconceptions of the intelligence capacity of women, meant that their ability to handle this new freedom (to logically interpret fiction) was under constant scrutiny. By nature women were considered more fragile and impressionable, and thus many people opposed women reading without some level of guardianship, on both moral and medical grounds.
As a cautionary tale to parents, novelist Charlotte Elizabeth Browne wrote in 1841 of her experience reading The Merchant of Venice at aged seven,
‘Reality became insipid almost hateful to me’
This was a common argument: that girls and women were more prone to hysteria and more likely to get themselves lost in fiction rather than focus on reality.
Physicians like Dr John Harvey Kellogg, believed women were more susceptible to both escapism and addiction and thus reading as a habit had the potential to become ‘as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium’.
Many revered medical professionals of the time shared this view that exposure to novels could have a negative effect on women’s health. For instance, female physician Dr Mary-Ann Wood, stated in her book What Young Women Ought to Know (1899) that,
‘Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.’
The popularity of romance novels was also a subject of moral concern because it was feared they were corrupting influences on purity, and that they set unrealistic expectations.
A woman’s chastity was deemed immensely important during this time, and novel reading was seen as both a distraction to their domestic obligations, and a threat to the gender expectation to be a faithful and docile wife and mother.
As a 21st century women, I too easily take for granted what it means to have agency over what I read. Reflecting on an historical period where the notion that a woman can have independence over what she reads was still an emerging and highly contested, makes me further appreciate how beautiful it is to have access to knowledge, and creative works .
[Originally this was in Cluster early last year]