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Literature’s Surprising Bits

3 September, 2015

It’s been awhile since I enjoyed  such a comical and educational romp through literature. John Sutherland’s Curiosities of Literature: A book-lover’s anthology of liberary erudition offers a potpourri of literary facts and issues, with comical illustrations by Martin Rowson. Critic and humor writer David Lodge recommends it for ‘insomniac bibliophiles’. It would be an enjoyable book to take on a long international plane trip or to place in a guest bedroom.

For example, did you know that you can buy a Shakespeare action figure with a nodding head? Ask the bard if he likes what you’ve written and you’ll get positive non-verbal feedback.

Or that a gun website picked David Morrell as the best ‘gun author’, for accurate descriptions of guns and their use in his Rambo stories? And the worst gun author? The more well-known author, Robert Ludlum, gets the wooden spoon.

Some of Sutherland’s literary history gems are more complex. For example, the fascinating story behind the British edible substance called Bovril.

250 gram jar of Bovril

250 gram jar of Bovril (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bovril is a made-up word, with ‘bo’ for the Latin bos, meaning beef. The term ‘vril’ has a literary connection to the early sci-fi of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

If he sounds familiar, it’s probably because the famous annual contest—to pen the worst opening line to an imaginary novel—is named after him. One of his novels begins with the phrase, ‘it was a dark and stormy night’. The phrase became famous over 100 years later when the cartoon dog, Snoopy, relied on it each time he attempted to write his own great work.

B-L’s 1871 sci-fi novel, The Coming Race, depicts the earth’s centre not only as hollow, but home to an advanced race. Sutherland describes these alien beings as ‘giant, quasi reptilian flying females’ who possess a strong electrical ‘fluid’. B-L called this fluid Vril.

The book was so popular that Fluid Beef, a beef tea created to sustain Napolean’s army, was renamed Bovril!

Sutherland addresses a number of literary areas, e.g., asthma and genius, Hardy’s heart, the first writer to use a typewriter instead of pen or pencil or dictation, the Carlyles’ wedding night, the shortest poem, common misquotes, the first western, the reading tastes of some US Presidents, the most popular novel in the American Civil War, the Baskerville effect, and the celebrity car crash.

John Sutherland. Curiosities of Literature: A book-lover’s anthology of literary erudition. Arrow Bks. 2008.
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