Posts Tagged ‘Project Gutenberg’

Other Voices of the Great War

April 29, 2018

You don’t need to look far on this blog to be aware of my interest in the First World War. I’ve read many of the great works of literature – poetry, prose and drama – that came out of those tragic years, and I’ve explored some of the sites of the conflict, on the western front at least.

What I’m gradually discovering are the other, smaller voices from those years, that have fallen into obscurity, but that are nevertheless interesting and powerful documents, often with an unexpected immediacy. It wasn’t just combatants from the warring nations who wrote, but civilians, nurses, volunteers: all sorts of people from all walks of life, and their voices are filling out for me the impression of its having been a world war in the sense of involving everyone.

Some of these texts are available in print, some exist online in archives such as Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, and others have been carefully recorded by the volunteers at Librivox, so it’s clearly not just me who is interested in, and has been moved by, these accounts.

The Martyrdom of Belgium (librivox) is quite a shocking document. Both sides produced a fair amount of ‘atrocity propaganda’ at various times, but this was the report of a commission set up to investigate and document various deeds committed by the Germans as they swept through neutral Belgium in the early days of the war, and it’s the names, places, streets, villages and towns, along with the precise numbers of murdered civilians that appalled me. Obviously the events described pale into insignificance compared with what came later, but there is clear evidence of deliberate targeting of civilians in a bid to terrorise the local population.

The American writer Edith Wharton‘s account of the early days of the war from Paris and her visits to the front lines is fascinating, replete with a sense of immediacy. I’ve written about it before, here.

Nurses were often horrified by what they saw and experienced; Vera Brittain‘s accounts are well-known, but the anonymous Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front is just as powerful, as is Ward Muir‘s Observations of an Orderly (both on librivox).

While I was travelling recently, I listened to E W Hornung‘s Notes of A Camp Follower on the Western Front. He was a civilian volunteer with the YMCA, who attempted to provide comforts for the troops when they were sent behind the lines for rest and recuperation; he spent a lot of time making tea and cocoa, and putting together and running a small lending library for the troops, as well as watching, and having many conversations with men, many of whom he never saw again, because they did not survive. I was reminded of the vital role of people like him when I visited Talbot House in Poperinghe.

Accounts such as most of these I’ve mentioned are often effective because they do not benefit from the distance, the passage of time and the hindsight that other, more well-know accounts have: we are reading or listening to accounts where the final outcome is not known, where the writer and their initial readers did not know what was still to come: responses and judgements may have been rendered erroneous or inaccurate by today, but that does not matter: we have a real document from the time, which can still speak to us powerfully, across a whole century…


Ellis Meredith: The Master Knot of Human Fate

March 30, 2018

The resume of this Librivox audiobook grabbed me, and so I downloaded it to listen to in the car.

A natural cataclysm of some sort – never truly explained or clarified – isolates a man and a woman, who knew each other in their previous existence – on an island some where California and the western US used to be. Luckily (!) everything necessary for their basic survival is on hand…

I was interested to learn about the cataclysm, and was disappointed. I was interested to see how their Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson existence panned out, but, apart from everything going just swimmingly, I learned little. A home and smallholding, conveniently abandoned, was to hand.

I wondered if anyone else had survived. Our heroes hope against hope for a sign, a ship; after a year one appears on the horizon, and they signal to it – perhaps rather foolishly, it might seem – but next morning it is revealed to have been an abandoned wreck, and not even useful supplies can be gleaned from the wreck, as Robinson managed three centuries ago. So they are alone.

A twenty-first century reader would wonder about the possibility of emotion and sexual attraction between them, isolated for the duration. Clearly they were fond of each other in their previous world, and they do grow closer. They realise that they may be the only humans left alive, and reflect on whether they have a duty to continue the species. And they engage in interminable religious and philosophical discussions about this, and about what faith their putative offspring should be raised in…. Everything is sauced and spiced with liberal doses of nineteenth century religion (the novel was written in 1901); they must be sure they ‘love’ each other and have absolutely no doubts about what they are about to undertake, before they devise a wedding ceremony for themselves, and she happens to find an old wedding-dress in a trunk.

And then the story ends.

Reader, do not waste your time either reading or listening to this book: it really isn’t worth it. Maudlin, tiresome and sentimental, it should have stayed forgotten. Librivox and Project Gutenberg do a great job of restoring access to forgotten literature of the past, but this one could have quite well stayed lost, I think.

Peter Whitfield: Travel – A Literary History

January 18, 2018

51qmqSUU-+L._AC_US218_This was a well-produced book, from the Bodleian Library press (it’s nice to be able to say such a thing nowadays) and Peter Whitfield writes well as he surveys the territory of travel writing over the centuries. It does take a particular skill to know the range and scope of the territory, and then to select and summarise, to compare and comment, keeping everything under control. And there has to be an excellent bibliography – which there is. I have some gripes, which I’ll get on to later. But the book is a must for any serious reader of travel literature as a pointer to where to look next, what one may have missed and so on.

As I have often noticed, Whitfield also sees a progression over time in what has been done and then written about; heroism initially, then exploration; more recently travel and finally, in our day when there are no real unknowns, tourism and mass tourism. Similarly, written accounts have developed in scope, but also moved closer to being guidebooks.

I was pleased to encounter mentions of many writers I’d already read and enjoyed, as well as a few that I shall now be looking out for; a certain amount of downloading of historical texts from Project Gutenberg as well as the Internet Archive took place as I was reading. I also find travel writing eminently listenable-to as I’m driving, hearing about others’ travels as I’m on my own, far more modest trips.

One of the main things Whitfield notices and illustrates is the gradual relinquishing over time – though not probably fully until the last century – of the Westerner’s sense of superiority to the people he meets and the places he visits (for most of the travellers cited are male) and the realisation that the traveller is the foreigner in the lands he visits, rather than the inhabitants. Perhaps this may now seem rather obvious to us, but so much historical, religious and cultural baggage had to be abandoned before the penny dropped, as it were.

From the eighteenth century onwards, travel became more clearly the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Many of the least satisfactory accounts come from the nineteenth century, where the colonialist outlook is so much in the foreground, but once that era fades, in the twentieth century we are back with the learning traveller again.

However, curiously, as he approaches modern times, Whitfield’s vision seems to narrow rather, and he often focuses more on novelists and writers of fiction than travellers themselves, a side-track which, though occasionally enlightening, I found got in the way and led to gaps, and omissions of travellers I expected to encounter; his travellers became rather more exclusively British, too. I know one has to set boundaries somewhere, but again I found some choices more than a little curious. Things improved as we moved further into the twentieth century and writers such as Wilfred Thesiger, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jan Morris received their due.

In sum: not an easy task by any means; a very useful survey and helpful bibliography, and I’d have liked a few more non-British travellers included.

Elaine Showalter: A Literature of their Own

March 1, 2016

51vPaDJijLL._AA160_I was having a clearout and tidy-up when I came across this book, which had lain unopened for half a lifetime; before passing it on to a charity shop, I glanced through what was one of the key texts when I was researching feminist science fiction all those years ago. It’s still brilliant.

Showalter wrote this introduction to women’s literature/ novels by women in the mid-1970s: I’m not aware of anything comparable before then. It’s very detailed and well-researched; the general introduction to women as writers gives an excellent overview and references a large number of texts which had previously disappeared into obscurity. She looks at the development of women’s writing from the historical, social, cultural, psychological and gender perspectives, dividing it into a number of key phases, which then receive fuller treatment in later chapters.

Major texts (Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss) and major writers – the Bronte sisters, George Eliot – are explored in detail and if you need them, there are pointers to a wealth of other writers and novels. Many of these will have been out-of-print for years at the time she was writing; many are probably now more easily available, either through the efforts of such publishers as Virago or the Women’s Press, or because they are out of copyright and therefore available as electronic texts via the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg.

Showalter moves her reader logically from Victorian writers tot he first, early twentieth century wave of feminists and suffragists, exploring Virginia Woolf in some detail before ultimately condemning Woolf’s search for androgyny as utopian, and then moved into the 1960s second feminist wave, in which Doris Lessing figures largely.

Whatever perspective one approaches women’s literature from, it strikes me that this is still the must-read for context. Obviously it could do with bringing up-to-date to take account of the last forty years.

Other Routes: 1500 Years of African & Asian Travel Writing

December 19, 2014

4167G5VQ1VL._AA160_I’ve just re-read this important and challenging anthology. Challenging, because it counters so many of the Eurocentric claims to have ‘discovered’ places, and been the first travellers to ‘explore’ somewhere, as if everyone else in the world just stayed put, cultivating their gardens…

It’s a well-edited anthology with an excellent, detailed, serious academic introduction which develops a clear context for the anthology: travellers from Africa and Asia, from China and Japan, from the Arab world, were all visiting new lands many centuries ago, and writing detailed and thoughtful accounts of the new things they found there, sometimes in a prejudiced and dismissive way, often in a very open-minded and wondering way.

It suffers from the obvious problems with all anthologies, that you never get enough of something you find really interesting, just small gobbets, tantalising but insufficient. And with this sort of writing, often newly ‘re-discovered’, tracking down further helpings can be either really difficult or completely impossible. Some ancient translations can be found via Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive, but a lot has never been translated into English (or any European language, for that matter). Certainly, there is plenty for me to try and hunt down and enjoy (probably in my next existence). The editors do, successfully, demonstrate the range and breadth of the travelling done in the centuries they cover.

So, many people travelled and explored and wrote intelligently and analytically whilst we in the West were in the midst of our ‘Dark Ages’ (whatever they really were); it’s a sobering and necessary reminder that, although we may now be in the ascendant (?) other peoples were once, and often our West was not part of their thoughts or their travels, either because they didn’t know about us, or because we were boring barbarians devoid of interest to intelligent people…

Times were different then, clearly, and often the writers do not touch upon the kinds of detail about foreign lands that I would find interesting, particularly in terms of their interactions with the indigenous peoples of the lands they visited. There are some brilliant glimpses – the Arab traveller who provides the only existing account of a Viking burial, probably somewhere in present-day Russia, thus also raising questions about the origins of the local populations; an angry Arab traveller ranting about how dreadful Cairo is, would give any negative reviewer in today’s Lonely Planet guides a run for their money; a fascinating perspective from an Indian traveller who visits London and Scotland. Of course, the usual suspects like Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus also turn up.

Highly recommended if you want something completely different.

Reinventing the wheel, or recycling books…

November 20, 2014

As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware that books are just as disposable as other items in our consumer culture, and don’t enjoy any special qualities as physical objects or, increasingly, in terms of their content. Lest that seem an incredibly sweeping statement, I’ll explain myself.

It seems each generation rewrites the books of previous generations. In science, technology and a few other fields, this rewriting reflects real advances in discovery. Sometimes in history, new documents shed new light, so some of the history written since the collapse of communism such as the books of Timothy Snyder or Norman Davies, to mention a couple of my favourites, does contain genuinely new and enlightening material. But otherwise it does seem as if writers are rehashing and re-presenting old wine in new bottles. How much does Ian Kershaw‘s work on Hitler add to Alan Bullock‘s, from the previous generation? How much does another history of the Reformation add to previous knowledge and analysis? I’ve appreciated Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s books, but what have they really added to Philip Hughes‘ books from fifty years ago?

It’s obviously more profitable to package and market new books rather than reprint the old ones. And new academics have to build their reputations and make a living. Research continues, but I do wonder just how much new stuff is really uncovered. A raft of new books on Jane Austen and Shakespeare appear each year; I used to be interested, but now I realise there’s precious little that’s new.

Novels are retranslated. I have really enjoyed, for example, the new translations of classic Russian novels by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but if they hadn’t been done, I’d have been perfectly satisfied with the previous versions. Similarly with the new translation of Grass’ The Tin Drum: yes, it was good, but until then, I’d been fine with the original one. So what have we gained, really?

This feeling of re-inventing the wheel is often brought home to me as I – increasingly rarely – comb second-hand bookshops in search of – what? There, I often see thousands of ageing and crumbling books, fusty, mouldering and unloved, and unsellable: most of them will stay there until they disintegrate or are recycled, because nobody wants them, and we have conditioned ourselves to think that books are precious and we shouldn’t destroy them.

I wonder what this means for the future. Perhaps digital readers and e-books are a good thing, perhaps the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are where it should be at. But the realisation that my treasured companions – my books, dammit – are consumer articles just like anything else, is rather too disturbing…

Mary Shelley: Mathilda

October 26, 2014

A little-known novella by the author of Frankenstein and The Last Man; it is apparently available in print, but my e-copy came by way of the excellent Project Gutenberg. Thanks to a former student of mine for the recommendation.

Shelley pushed the boundaries in her fiction – the creation of life and the extinction of it in the two novels mentioned above; in this novella she tackles the subject of incest. It’s almost pure narrative, with some, though not much dialogue, so I was conscious of the author directing and shaping my response to events as I was being told rather than discovering and developing my own opinions; like Frankenstein, it’s a nested or layered narrative: the tale is an explanation to be read by a friend/confidant after the narrator’s death, to explain the unexplained to him, and within this container the narrator sets several other stories…

We learn of the narrator’s father, his young love and her very untimely death shortly after the birth of the narrator; grief leads the father to disappear for many years (very Gothic!), and this did lead me to wonder how come she knew of hos childhood and past in so much detail. She is raised in isolation by a distant and unloving aunt – here is exceptional existence number two. Eventually the father returns and the two are joyfully reunited, but everything takes a turn for the worse when a suitor takes a romantic interest in her; the father’s love for his daughter is turned into incestuous sexual desire, which he combats as he should. She, however, as a loving daughter urges her father to tell what has changed him and his feelings to her. He does. There is no physical incest involves; he flees in horror at what has become of him and kills himself, amid plenty of characteristic Gothic description. She again isolates herself from the world to suffer, actively seeking death, which she eventually brings about in true Gothic fashion from catching a chill, thus being saved from the taint of suicide. This all after failing to confide in a new friend who has also lost his intended unexpectedly.

I’m aware the summary makes it sound rather dated, and sometimes laughably Gothic – and it is. It lacks the hectic pace and feel of Frankenstein (thank goodness) until the middle where she urges her father to reveal the causes of his sadness, and we contemplate the horrors of incestuous feelings which, though unrequited, are clear on his part and hinted at on hers, I think. The tale lacks the moral complexity of the issues raised in Frankenstein, or the thought-provoking nature of The Last Man.

Surely the novella would have been shocking to a nineteenth-century reader, and I was surprised initially that a writer could have put such a delicate and taboo subject before her readers, even though she has them both die – but then Shelley, like any good writer, challenges her readers.

The death of reference books

September 23, 2014

It’s autumn, and so in our house, the annual clearout begins. This includes pruning the library, and I’m getting rid of a lot of old reference books. This had me thinking about how the internet has changed the way I look things up.

I still use dictionaries, (well, I would, being an ex-English teacher and crossword fan: it’s far easier with a book in your lap) so the faithful Chambers is on the shelves – our third copy, I think – though I often find myself using the OED online, as I have free access via our local library log-in. But paper encyclopaedias and gazetteers are now useless, I find, because the information available on the web is much more up-to-date, and easily accessible. Paper atlases and maps, however, I still find immensely useful when reading all the travel writing I consume: the detail, the clarity and the ability to relate one area to another is far easier than on something like Google Maps; the only time when online maps come into their own, I find, is when very small detail is needed.

General encyclopaedias pale into insignificance next to wikipedia. And who consults the Encyclopedia Britannica any more? Apparently, it’s hard to give away old printed sets, and it’s no longer the default source for detailed knowledge on the web either. Thanks to an excellent librarian at the school where I used to work, we were all trained in how to set up useful searches, and how to evaluate web sources for reliability and truthfulness, so why wouldn’t I start my quest for further knowledge on the web?

When it comes to more specific or specialised information, then I still think paper reference books have a place. I have a couple of sets of encyclopaedias of world literature which are still getting ever more well-worn, and I have not switched to using exclusively online information when travelling and touring; I would still much rather have a detailed guidebook and supplement this with latest online information as and when I need it. I need a paper map to find my way around unfamiliar towns and cities.

It is astonishing, though, how in a decade or so, our access to and use of information, has been revolutionised. I resent the waste of paper when a new – admittedly thinner – phone directory or yellow pages drops through the letterbox, as I can’t remember when I last used either. Instant, quality information on anything is at my fingertips, and, what I probably find most amazing of all, information I never knew I could have is there, courtesy of being able to surf and browse. People sometimes complain that the web is being taken over by huge corporations who only want to mine data, spy on us and sell us crap: this is undoubtedly true, and yet there is also such a tremendous resource of useful material, offered free, out there, and I’m immensely grateful to organisations like Project Gutenberg and Librivox, for example, who have revolutionised some aspects of my life…

Out of Print…and into the ether?

September 22, 2013

People who know me know I read a lot. I love books, especially the printed kind. But I am not a luddite, and technology had brought new possibilities to my reading.

I bought a NOOK a year ago. I havered for ages about getting an e-reader, and couldn’t stomach being in hock to Amazon or being stuck with something with as daft a name as k*ndle. I don’t buy books for my NOOK. I discovered that a lot of the old books – especially travel-writing – that I could only buy at exorbitant secondhand or reprint prices (and don’t get me started on the quality of POD reprints) – are actually available free as pdf or epub files, having been digitised and made available on sites like the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg. So I can download and read them free. If only it were that simple! I’ve discovered that anything digitised by g**gle has a fair chance of being garbled somewhere along the way, and has rarely been checked. Texts in older fonts don’t seem to scan well and are therefore riddled with errors and hard to read. Anything with footnotes is a nightmare, because these end up all over the place, and in the same size print and font as the body text, so often I don’t know where the hell I am.

I decided that these issues might be overcome on an e-reader with a larger screen – like A4 size? – but I don’t see anyone making one of those. And reading on a PC or a laptop is a pain because the page is the wrong shape. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m ready for them. But I’m persevering with my NOOK, and enjoying the free books.

Another thing I’ve discovered is audiobooks. Where the hell has this guy been? But free audiobooks, courtesy of the amazing Librivox website: there are now thousands of books available, read by volunteers, for download. And, if you speak French, there’s now a francophone equivalent site online. You can download files in various formats, and what originally got me interested was that I could burn the mp3 versions to CD and play them in the car on the way to work, or on other solitary long journeys.

Because they’re recorded by volunteers, they’re of variable quality. Some are, quite frankly, poor, but most of the ones I’ve listened to have been good to excellent – fantastic versions of many of Mark Twain’s books, for example, a brilliant version of The Wind in the Willows, a full version of St Augustine’s City of God, and lots more. Most are read by Americans, as the site is originally a US venture. Also, they only record out-of-copyright texts, which basically means pre-1923 US publication. And there’s a Librivox explanation recorded in at the start of each chapter: clearly one of the purposes of this is to put off rip-off merchants who might try to sell the recordings commercially. I think it’s a fantastic idea and I wish them every success. When I have time I intend to put a little back by volunteering to record for them.

%d bloggers like this: