Isaac Disraeli (1766-1848)

My edition is the sixth, published in 1824, in three volumes.  This is a collection of anecdotes, obscure historical events, little known authors, and even littler known  books.  The Disraeli family left Italy around 1750 and settled in the Netherlands.  Isaac emigrated to England toward the end of the century.  He had a well-founded reputation as a scholar, linguist, and pursuer of minutia;  he lived simply, and was kind to his wife and children.  These short essays were published in small literary magazines and periodicals.  Here are some of the more interesting subjects and factoids i found:

Before 1440, all books were in manuscript.  Richard de Bury bought 40 books from the monastery at St. Albans for 50 pounds of silver.  He wrote Philobiblion in 1340;  it’s a description of his library and included information on preserving and accumulating books.  At the time, the state library of France consisted of 20 volumes.  There were more books available by the middle of the next century.  The Duke of Bedford purchased 900 of them from Charles V of France at that time.

Literary criticism was , initially, pursued with emphases on revenge and conspiracy as authors fought to maintain a toe-hold in the early publishing environment.  Sarasin’s Sello’s essays in the Hebdomadary Flame were replete with “acidity and salts”.  Bayle was a bit more discrete;  he wrote 36 volumes of criticism in the period leading up to 1678.  Le Clerc was the author of 82 volumes, and Beausobre and L’Enfant translated 50 books of German criticism.  The first British Journal devoted to review and criticism was the “Monthly Review” which appeared in 1749.

Manuscripts were valuable at the time and hunters of them rummaged through the garbage cans of Europe for them.  Poggio found a copy of Aretino on Quintillian in the trash can behind a monastery.  One of Petrarch’s favorite books was Cicero, “On Glory”.  It was stolen, plagiarized, and destroyed by a visiting monk.  Another copy has never been located.

Robert Cotton, an early enthusiast, was visiting his tailor one day and noticed him using a piece of parchment for patterns.  It was one of the few remaining original transcripts of the Magna Carta.

Isaac noted that even early Classical authors could be rancorous:  Homer apparently stole part of his work from Suidus and Syagrus.  Plutarch intensely disliked Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle spent much of their time warring against each other as well as against other local scholiasts.  Josephus was a tool of the Roman state, tuning his writing to support the persecution of Jews and Christians.  Thomas Aquinas was regarded by some as one of the dimmer bulbs in the Christian world of the time.  He said angels were made of thick air.  A contemporary regarded his efforts as “cobwebs of sophistry”, full of “captious logic”.

Poets and writers were often seriously poor:  Camoens walked and begged for ten thousand miles before expiring.  Tasso had to borrow from friends to finish his “Jerusalem Delivered”, Corneille starved to death, Dryden sold 10,000 verses for 300 lbs., Purchas, author of a book of travels, was jailed for debt.  An early inventor, Marquis of Worcester, was ignored by Charles II:  he, according to Disraeli, invented the first steam engine (aside from Hero of Alexandria, that is).  Simon Ockley, orientalist, was happy to be in prison.  He said it was quiet and the food was better than that available outside.  Boethius and Grotius  agreed with him, both of them producing major works while incarcerated.

Some of the activities engaged in by writers and philosophers to relax were notable:  Richelieu used parkour, jumping up walls and fences, Tycho Brache made laboratory instruments and ground lenses, Samuel Clarke leaped over tables, Buffon and Evelyn were avid gardeners.  Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly was written as a sort of relief from his serious researches.

Vaucanson was an early genius, unrecognized in his time.  As a child, having observed a clock pendulum. he intellectually analyzed its construction and built his own.  Later he made many robots and simulacrums, like his flute-playing automaton.  When Ariosto finished his Orlando Furioso, he submitted it to the local Cardinal who sent a note back:  “Where the devil did you get all this stuff!”

The Countess of Pembroke told Chaucer she admired his silence more than his wit, but Addison was criticized for never saying much at all while in society.

Isaac included a long section on the Talmud, mostly recording his astonishment at some of the things it contained:  data on efficient gardening, divorce reasonable if the lady of the house burned the soup, and quite a bit about the incredible scholasticism  the “chop logic”,  as regards the minutia of life.  Some of Sancho Panza’s antics in “Quixote” are taken directly from the Talmud.

This is not a book to breeze through:  it’s one of those, like the Encyclopedia Brittanica, that is more suitable for quiet, reflective investigation than for perusing on a weekend.  or two.  But it’s quite intriguing.  It’s sort of like eating chocolate chip cookies:  it’s hard to know when to stop.  The writing style is fluid and readily intelligible.  This edition has 500 pages in the first volume alone, every one of them crammed with fascinating detail as regards the little-known corners of history.   I hope to get to the other two volumes fairly soon.  Isaac wrote “Calamities of Authors” as well.  They’re all available on Gutenberg.




Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958)

Letitia Carberry is a middle-aged lady with a certain portion of mental tenacity.  She has adventures, mainly due to her single-minded curiosity and indomitable courage.  Her two friends, Aggie and Lizzie share her escapades and do their best to keep her out of trouble.  They are only partially successful.  Lizzie narrates the following episodes:

Mind Over Motor:

On the way to visit Bettina, Tish’s daughter, the car the three are riding in, has a flat tire while crossing a rickety bridge.  A startled fisherman who was enjoying a quiet moment below the structure yelled at them for driving too fast and refused to help change the tire.  Unchagrined, the friends continue on to Bettina’s cottage, where they meet Mr. Ellis who needs help organizing an automobile race.  Tish has become enamored of motoring, as is evidenced by her attempting to start up Jasper MacCutcheon’s race car at 4 a.m. and bruising her arm while trying to get it started and incidentally causing it to backfire, waking up everyone in the house.  Later, while doing some grocery shopping in the small village, they re-encounter Mr. Ellis, who tries to interest them in helping sponsor an automobile race to take place at the local racetrack.  They make plans and Tish contributes $2500, a “secure investment” according to Mr. Ellis.  Jasper (Bettina’s boyfriend) enters the race, but crashes shortly before the finish line.  Tish jumps in to the vehicle and even though she spins out and has another flat tire, she wins the race, and accrues a significant amount of prize money, which she gives to her daughter and Jasper when they get married.

Like a Wolf on the Fold:

This is the story of Tufik, a young Syrian refugee who is befriended by Tish.  His story is one of homelessness and persecution in his native country due to the invasion of the armed forces of Turkey.  He claims to be Christian and moans about his family, facing the onslaught of the enemy who “came down like a wolf on the fold and his cohorts all gleaming in purple and gold”.  So he lives in Tish’s house and her cook, Hannah leaves because she can’t stand him.  Tish’s nephew, Charlie Sands, declares him to be a con artist, but is not credited.  The three friends have planned a trip to Panama, but they abandon their excursion because Tufik whines and moans.  They give him the money they had saved for the trip and he appears with a girl he calls his sister.  Tufik invites them to a Syrian wedding, where the ladies enter a Syrian enclave, a secret room ensconced in a remote portion of the city, where they eat strange foods and are fed hashish.  They escape and take the next train to Panama.  Returning after two months, they accidentally meet Tufik again and dash off to catch a boat to Europe.

The Simple Lifers:

After nearly drowning while training to swim the English Channel, Tish becomes enamored of the “Simple Life”:  living on fruits, nuts and berries, while pursuing an idyllic life in the woods.  They drive into the North Maine woods and, wearing a minimum of clothing, manage to survive for a while on rabbits and nuts.  One evening a young man appears, begging for food and a bit of fire.  His name is Percy and he’s there because he can’t marry his girlfriend until he’s lived for a month in the forest and proven himself a “real man”, his potential father-in-law betting good money that he will fail.  By chance, Percy’s rival for Dorothea’s affections arrives, mounted on a splendid steed with accouterments to match.  The ladies manage to appropriate his horse and gear, equip Percy with them, and arrange for him to ride out of the woods like Natty Bumppo (Cooper’s The Deerslayer), dressed in rabbit skins and carrying a cross-bow.  He and Dorothea marry and he sends the girls sable stoles in gratitude.

Tish’s Spy:

Tish, as a result of the beginning of WW1, starts looking for spies;  for some reason, she concludes that Canada is full of them and is determined to do something about it.  Because she has recently injured her leg trying to learn ballet and unable to drive, she hires a chauffeurette named Hutchinson.  So Aggie, Lizzie, and Tish travel to northern Canada on an apparent fishing expedition, but in actuality to investigate the Indians and to look for spies.  They are followed by two men;  MacDonald, who they suspect of being an agent, and a red-haired man they believe is a detective.  They have multiple adventures with canoes and fish (one of the latter a 49 inch bass), and meet a real Indian who tries to sell them a set of encyclopedias.  At one point Lizzie, being a healthy sort of lady, has to sit on the bottom of their canoe in order to plug a leak.  Aggie gets stuck in a bog and is rescued by what seems to be a bear.  Tish nearly drowns when she puts on a life preserver upside down and is swept down-river with only her feet above the water.  A gun battle ensues and the finale has Hutchinson falling into the arms of MacDonald, foretelling a prompt marriage.

My Country Tish of Thee:

Tish, on the advice of Charlie Sands, organizes a trip to Glacier National Park, in search of peace and detachment from worldly coils.  They happen to arrive simultaneously with a movie-making outfit who are creating an oater about robbers from Canada kidnapping  a group of tourists.  After a lot of mishaps (Aggie loses her false teeth, lizzie is squashed in the mud by a horse, they catch a mountain lion in a rabbit trap and eat it, Tish drives off a grizzly by throwing a ham at it and hitting it in the stomach), and a long chase on horseback, the ladies capture the outlaws (who they believe to be movie actors) and deliver them up to the long arm of the law.  Also Jim and Helen make up;  she’s been enraptured by the thought of becoming a star and is brought down to earth by the efforts of Tish and friends.  They get a $5,000 reward and, naturally, donate it to the future of Jim and Helen.

This was another pretty funny book…  It could be described as a cross between Wodehouse and the Marx brothers.  Ms. Rinehart is, of course, a well-known writer of mysteries, and her skill here is evident.  The stories are well written, the plots are surprising but logical, and she has her own brand of humor which startles as well as amuses.  There are other books about the adventures of Tish, Lizzie and Aggie;  i intend to search for them:  they’re great for drawing one’s attention away from the cares of the virtual world and it’s problems and difficulties.  I’ve read “The Circular Staircase”, “The Door”, and some of her other works.  She can be a bit long-winded but it’s not obvious in the Tish stories…  they’re imaginative and magnetic, imo…