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Penguin’s Birthday


Happy birthday to Penguin! On this day in 1935, Penguin Books was founded by Sir Allen Lane. At the Penguin archives in Bristol today, visitors can see a picture of the first 10 Penguins ever published, from Lane’s own collection.

I have only read two: A Farewell to Arms and The Mysterious Affair at Styles. All the rest is now on my to-read list. I prefer this simple and iconic original Penguin format.

Returning to London from a weekend at the Devon home of the crime writer Agatha Christie in 1934, the publisher Allen Lane scoured Exeter Station for something to read. All he could find were reprints of 19th century novels and Lane decided to found a publishing house to produce good quality paperbacks sold at sixpence each, the same price as a packet of cigarettes.

Lane’s secretary suggested Penguin as a “dignified, but flippant” name for the company and the office junior Edward Young was sent to sketch the penguins at London Zoo as its logotype. Young was then asked to design the covers of the first set of ten paperbacks to be published in summer 1935 including Ariel and A Farewell to Arms. Considering illustrated book covers to be trashy, Lane insisted on his following a simple horizontal grid for Penguin’s jackets in colors that signified the genre of each book: orange for fiction, green for crime, and blue for biography.

School Mysteries


A breath of fresh air is sorely needed after finishing The Magic Mountain. Thomas H. Cook answers the call. Every book of his is a subtle mind game. The one I’m reading current is actually a re-read with which he found breakout success, The Chatham School Affair. It was set in the small town of Chatham in Cape Cod back in early 1920s. The narrative shuffles back and forth in time. Attorney Henry Griswald has a secret: the truth behind the tragic events the world knew as the Chatham School Affair, the controversial tragedy that destroyed five lives, shattered a quiet community, and forever scarred the young boy. Layer by layer, in The Chatham School Affair, Cook paints a stunning portrait of a woman, a school, and a town in which passionate violence seems impossible and inevitable. This book has the highest rating of all his books on goodreads except Red Leaves. Another great mystery with an academic setting is Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, a dark thriller set in the prestigious St. Oswald’s Grammar School, where, as the new term gets under way, a number of incidents befall students and faculty alike, beginning as small annoyances but soon escalating in both number and consequence.

[674] The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann


” What was life? No one knew. It was aware of itself the moment it became life, that much was certain—and yet did not know what it was. Consciousness, as sensitivity to stmuli, was undoubtedly aroused to some extent at even the lowest, most undeveloped stages of its occurrence . . . (Ch.5, p.270)

Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War, The Magic Mountain is many things: a modernist classic, a comedy of manners, an allegory of pre-war burgeois Europe. The plot is incidental: it revolves around Hans Castorp, a young engineer who just completed a training course preparing him for a job in ship building. Before beginning work, in 1904, he plans a short three-week visit to his cousin, Joachim Ziemssem who is in a TB sanatorium up in the Swiss Alps.

A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries; and although he may regard the general and impersonal foundations of his existence as unequivocal givens and take them for granted, having as little intention of ever subjecting them to critique as our good Hans Castorp himself had . . . (Ch.2, p.31)

The novel spans about ten years, building up very slowly by important details of hans Castorp’s past. Before his three weeks are up it is discovered that he himself has TB and becomes a patient, living there for the next seven years, until his departure just before the Great War, and becomes a soldier. Obviously, illness is decidedly center-stage in The Magic Mountain, but there is also a disturbing ambiguity as to just how much of Hans’s illness is genuine. Ensconced in his lounge chair, miles away from the cut and thrust of life on the “flat lands,” Hans finds himself questioning long-held notions of honor and mortality. Up in the “high, remote, narrow world under a spell of icy purity,” the passage of time becomes unnoticeable—in a way slippery and can no longer be trusted to behave as one would expect. He and other consumptives that represent the European nationalities, are trapped in such rigid regime of sumptuous meals, rest cure, and fetished thermometer readings. There are giddy flirtations and intellectual debate on disease, humanity, suffering, and love.

Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. (Ch.7, p.657)

The book is long, challenging, and provocative. Reptition of routine doesn’t lead to a homogeneity of time. Instead it annihilates the regular sense of time. The eternal monotony of time’s rhythm in the sanatorium creates a sensation not even of mere repetition but of a regular standstill of time. Over time Hans takes up reading in subject matter that would help understand life—medicine, religion, and botany. Over time there is a heightening of his personality as a result of a quest that is a universal one: to pass through illness to rediscover the ethics of normal life. It’s the same journey we embark upon everyday. The magic mountain is no longer a retreat or social height; it is our everyday. As months turn in years, his stay in the sanatorium is not limited to a brief and terminable episode of illness, but a sentence without limits and without walls in which his existence, out of his free will and with the best intention of all sides, is bound to the ministrations and adjudications of medical expertise.

The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition that requires patience and a slow reading pace. Mann contrives to create a sense of timelessness with tedious descriptions of the obsessive states of mind, intense antagonisms and imaginary love affairs. In the closed environment of the mountaintop, Hans Castorp achieves an individualism that is neither social nor religious, transcending even all politically determined morality. The story is simple but the way it’s told is complex, like hiking a treacherous, steep slope.

706 pp. Vintage International. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Barnes & Noble Forbids Photography

Barnes & Noble doesn’t allow pictures in the store. They blame copyright for the decision. Recently I went to a Barnes & Noble to pick up some books. There was a full display of books that “everyone should read”, including books that are widely taught in school. Since I’ve been interested in books that I never got a chance to read in school, I decided to pick up some books and to take a snapshot of the display. As I did so, however, an employee came over and told me no photography was allowed. At first, I thought he was joking, but upon realizing he was serious, asked why. The employee claimed it was store policy and that it was because the books were covered by copyright.

At the cafe, while a girl was poring over her books, just as she picked up her phone so that the phone was directly over the pages, another employee walked over to her and told her no photography was allowed. She wasn’t attempting to take pictures of the books, and the books were hers! I couldn’t believe what I was told and what I saw. It is as if Barnes & Noble has hired secret police to patrol the store in order to make sure no one is taking picture of any printed materials.

I think this copyright argument is specious. Barnes & Noble itself is not copyright holder, so it cannot take action. I actually don’t think this argument is all that compelling, really. B&N, as a private actor, certainly has the right to agree with a copyright holder that it will block photographs of their books or to decide, just as a private store, to block photography. Still, it appears the reason is somewhat misleading, and my later calls to B&N confirmed that they consider this a copyright issue.

But, really, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the legal arguments one way or the other. As happens so often in copyright issues, it’s about the common sense situation, and the fact that blocking photographs in the store makes no common sense. Basically, B&N is barring attempts by people to promote the in-store display for free, and that’s silly. Stopping word of mouth marketing is a bad idea. How often to you promote through word of the mouth? It’s how the culture works. But B&N decides that it’s copyright infringement, even though all we are doing is taking snapshots of the display of books and not the inside of the books page by page. Not only do they wrench communication, B&N also render their stores very unfriendly for customers to browse.

Signs of A Book Addict

1. Book is your general outlook on life. People are cool but reading is your preferred social activity.
True. I can entertain myself reading all day, even on vacation. Friends are good but they can’t be there at my fingers like book, can they?

2. You know what a book hangover is and you have them frequently.
False. A great book would burn in my head but I know it’s time to move on to other books.

3. You plan whole afternoons around browsing bookstores.
True. Bookstore scouring is part of a reader’s life. You’ll be surprised what new authors and unheard-of books you’ll find when you randomly pore over the shelves.

4. If you go too long without buying or reading a book you feel a huge sense of withdrawal and are thinking of the next time you can get away to a bookstore or library.
True. At least one new book is acquired every week.

5. You have trouble functioning at work or school sometimes because you stayed up late reading.
False. I don’t stay up reading, nor do I read in bed. I rather wake up early and read.

6. You’re constantly sharing your favorite book quotes on social media and have either a Pinterest board or Tumblr dedicated to these quotes.
False. Not really, busy I’m usually too busy taking notes and writing down key sentences for my reviews.

7. You’re always looking forward to the weekend but mostly because you can’t wait to get 2 whole days for unadulterated alone time with a new book.
True. But I don’t devote all day reading. I would read for about 3 to 4 hours over breakfast in the morning, then head out to run errand, go workout, and come back to read more. I have to digest what I read.

8. You carry a book with you at all times because you never know when you’ll have a spare minute to do some extra reading.
True. Seriously at all times. I read when I wait for the table for brunch, wait for oil change, and yes, even when I’m at the park with my dog.

9. Your friends and family have stopped asking you what you want for Christmas or birthdays because they know you’ll always say books.
True. They also stop buying me books because I either have read them, have owned them, or don’t care for the ones they get me.

10. You take your book clubs seriously. If you show up and you haven’t read the book?
False. I don’t belong to one. I have a tough time finding one that shares my eccentric taste.

11. When you go out to dinner you find yourself wanting to gush about a book you’re reading and the characters in the story. You’ve been spending so much time with them you feel like they’ve become a part of your life just as much as anyone else.
False. I try not to be too attached to my reading when I’m out with friends.

12. You don’t mind layovers so much because you know it’s a perfect time to get in extra reading.
True. Especially when I can enjoy the comfort and amenities that an airline lounge can offer. I make myself comfortable with a book and some refreshments! A specific novel always reminds me of a trip.

13. When you travel you always bring as least two books because you’re not sure what kind of mood you’ll be in or what sort of story you’ll feel like reading.
True. I bring about 3 paperbacks in case one book doesn’t live up to my expectation or to my whim. I would pick up another one at the airport bookstore if I’m flying long-haul to say, Asia, like i do every year.

14. And if you don’t have a Kindle you just sort of assume half of your luggage will be all books.
False. I used to lug around a bag full of books. Now the convenience of an e-reader has reduced my travel load. Also I usually familiarize myself with local bookstores wherever I travel.

15. When someone talks smack about one of your favorite writers you instantly get defensive and suggest they try reading another work by them.
True. Every author deserves a second chance. So does a reader.

16. You legitimately don’t understand people who say they don’t read.
True. Yeah, how do they do with their spare time? Really?

17. When the movie version of a book comes out you’ll go see it but you know there isn’t any way the movie could be better than the book.
False. I have given up seeing the movies because they almost never measure up to the books. I had been appalled at how much of the story they left out.

18. One of your favorite things to do when arriving in a new city is to check out the local bookstores.
True. It’s the very first thing I research for after I book the flight and hotel.

19. You actually have a bookstore bucket list of amazing bookstores around the world you absolutely want and need to visit before you die.
True. To name a few: Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, King James Bookstore in Salt Lake City, The Strand in New York City, Book Soup in Los Angeles, El Ateneo in Buenos Aires, Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht, Keibunsya in Kyoto, and Hatchards in London

20. You’ve stopped lending books to friends because you know they just won’t care for the books in the way they should be cared for.
False. I’m grateful that the few friends who borrow books from me are really considerate and respectful to the books.

21. You don’t understand how people can be lonely when they have books.
True. I’ll be lonely without them.

22. You’ve skipped over entire meals or canceled plans just so you could finish a book.
True. Postpone a meeting or dinner but would not skip a meal. I have a habit to read while I eat.

23. You honestly can’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday than reading a book and drinking coffee or tea.
True. That’s the ritual. I would read about 100 pages of my current book, shift to the book section of Sunday paper, which is the New York Times, and go back to read the book.

24. You buy all your friends and family a book for Christmas.
False. I actually stop observing Christmas because of all the material madness of the season. All that ugly hording and buying really gross me out.

25. You always check out the max amount of books you can at the library and get annoyed when someone asks you if you’ll actually be able to read all of those by the due date. Hello, do you even know me?
False. I buy more than I borrow.

26. You have words from your favorite author or book tattooed on your body somewhere.
False. Hell no!

27. You buy more books even if you have a stack of books that haven’t been read yet.
True. Buying new books has nothing to do with what’s not yet to be read at home.

28. And you feel sort of guilty that you haven’t read those books yet but you will! Someday!
True. Just console yourself with the thought that a reader’s life is always work in progress.

29. Pretty much your entire apartment is filled with stacks of books.
False. Books all over the study. I try not to clutter my condo with books.

30. You sort of hate when a book is 250 pages or under because you know you’ll just end up reading it within a day or two and will have to find something else to read when it’s finished.
True. Yes I tend to read longer books with at least 250 pages. Novellas don’t usually get my attention.

31. But that’s okay because you always have at least a few emergency books you can choose from if you have nothing else to read.
True. I always have some quick reads set aside.

32. When people can’t find you they just assume you’re at a bookstore.
True. Or I’m sipping a cosmopolitan somewhere with a book.

33. You love seeing people in public with books and you’re always try and catch a peek at the title to see what they’re into.
True. While I’m eclectic in choosing my books, I’m always excited to see people reading in the public–regardless of what they are reading. It certainly made my day when I saw a girl read The Master and Margarita at the dog park.

34. When the ending of a book sucks you feel seriously betrayed by the author. I mean, how could they do this to me?
True. I’ll never forget and forgive Ann Patchett doing that to me in Bel Canto.

35. You think the only way you can truly get to know an old, used book is by smelling it. Ahh, old book smell.
True. The kids in school used to make fun of me smelling the pages of new textbooks. Rude!

36. When you find a used bookstore you get ridiculously excited. The level of excitement can sometimes trump excitement over other awesome things like pizza places, ice-cream shops, etc. Your enthusiasm for used bookstores knows no bounds.
True. Used bookstores are treasure boxes. People who own a used bookstore are usually devoted readers.

37. You take it personally when you recommend a book to a friend and 6 months later they still haven’t read it. What are they even waiting for?
False. I am not that controlling.

38. You wake up in the morning thinking about the characters in a book and wondering what will happen.
True. I just did this morning—couldn’t wait to find out what happens to Hans Castorp after his cousin left the mountain sanatorium in The Magic Mountain.

39. You own a variety of different editions of your favorite book. If you see it in a foreign bookstore or with a new cover you can’t help but want it for your collection.

40. You’ve yelled at a book in public.
True. And throw one down as well.

Sinclair Lewis Declined Pulitzer

I mentioned Sinclair Lewis declined the Pulitzer Prize. In 1926, on discovering that his novel, Arrowsmith, had been awarded what was then called the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel, author Sinclair Lewis wrote the following letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee and declined the honor. He remains the only person to have done so. I enclose his letter in full:

For Release Thursday, May 26th, 1926

To the Pulitzer Prize Committee,
Courtesy of Mr. Frank D. Fackenthal, Secretary,
Columbia University
New York City


I wish to acknowledge your choice of my novel “Arrowsmith” for the Pulitzer Prize. That prize I must refuse, and my refusal would be meaningless unless I explained the reasons.

All prizes, like all titles, are dangerous. The seekers for prizes tend to labor not for inherent excellence but for alien rewards: they tend to write this, or timorously to avoid writing that, in order to tickle the prejudices of a haphazard committee. And the Pulitzer Prize for novels is peculiarly objectionable because the terms of it have been constantly and grievously misrepresented.

Those terms are that the prize shall be given “for the American novel published during the year which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” This phrase, if it means anything whatever, would appear to mean that the appraisal of the novels shall be made not according to their actual literary merit but in obedience to whatever code of Good Form may chance to be popular at the moment.

That there is such a limitation of the award is little understood. Because of the condensed manner in which the announcement is usually reported, and because certain publishers have trumpeted that any novel which has received the Pulitzer Prize has thus been established without qualification as the best novel, the public has come to believe that the prize is the highest honor which an American novelist can receive.

The Pulitzer Prize for Novels signifies, already, much more than a convenient thousand dollars to be accepted even by such writers as smile secretly at the actual wording of the terms. It is tending to become a sanctified tradition. There is a general belief that the administrators of the prize are a pontifical body with the discernment and power to grant the prize as the ultimate proof of merit. It is believed that they are always guided by a committee of responsible critics, though in the case both of this and other Pulitzer Prizes, the administrators can, and sometimes do, quite arbitrarily reject the recommendations of their supposed advisers.

If already the Pulitzer Prize is so important, it is not absurd to suggest that in another generation it may, with the actual terms of the award ignored, become the one thing for which any ambitious novelist will strive; and the administrators of the prize may become a supreme court, a college of cardinals, so rooted and so sacred that to challenge them will be to commit blasphemy. Such is the French Academy, and we have had the spectacle of even an Anatole France intriguing for election.

Only by regularly refusing the Pulitzer Prize can novelists keep such a power from being permanently set up over them.

Between the Pulitzer Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and its training-school, the National Institute of Arts and Letters, amateur boards of censorship, and the inquisition of earnest literary ladies, every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile. In protest, I declined election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters some years ago, and now I must decline the Pulitzer Prize.

I invite other writers to consider the fact that by accepting the prizes and approval of these vague institutions we are admitting their authority, publicly confirming them as the final judges of literary excellence, and I inquire whether any prize is worth that subservience.

I am, sirs,

Yours sincerely,


Sinclair Lewis

Lewis also objected to the way publishers advertised a Pulitzer winner as the best novel of the year, as if any committee or person was competent enough to select a best novel. Previously, the Committee had recommended Lewis for the Pulitzer for Main Street in 1921, but that May the Trustees of Colombia University overruled the jury, and the prize went to Edith Wharton instead for The Age of Innocence. Some speculate that this instance led Lewis to decline the 1926 Pulitzer. Lewis’s Babbitt was chosen for the Pulitzer in 1923, but the committee was again overruled by the Trustees and the Prize went instead to Willa Cather for One of Ours. This was a double neglect to Lewis.



A lady at the coffee shop expressed her admiration at my intensity and concentration in reading. I would sit in the alcove and pore over my book over coffee. At her inquiry of whether I’m working on a dissertation, I said school days were well behind me. I showed her my copy of The Magic Mountain and said lately I’m reading classics that I never read in school. She was more than impressed—and felt compelled to read more. I think readers give off that aura that inspire others to discover the pleasure in between the pages.

Although I’m only on page 167/706 of The Magic Mountain, I’m excited to have Sinclair Lewis lined up for the next read. He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although he was proud of his Midwestern roots, he traveled widely and was interested in many different aspects of American society, from business and medicine to religion and small town life. His concern with issues involving women, race, and the powerless in society make his work still vital and pertinent today. His analysis of the America of the 1920s holds true for the America of today. His prophecies have become our truths and his fears our most crucial problems.” Sinclair Lewis was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Main Street and Babbitt, and won the award for Arrowsmith (although he turned it down).


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