Category Archives: New Books

Take-Homes from the Museum of London’s Dickens Exhibition: An App & a Facsimile Manuscript

I’m immersed in Dickens these days, completing a draft of the chapter devoted to his 1844 copyright case in my book about writers’ lawsuits, and am consequently paying even more attention than I might otherwise have done to news of publications, exhibitions, and events related to the 200th anniversary of his birth.

This week, all the buzz is about Dickens and London, an exhibition opening today at the Museum of London which “recreat[es] the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projections,” thereby taking visitors “on a haunting journey to discover the city that inspired [Dickens'] writings.” On display are “paintings, photographs, costumes, and objects” including rarely seen hand-written manuscripts of Bleak House, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. See the Telegraph, the Guardian, and BBC News for tantalizing previews.

But what is the Dickens fan who dwells far outside of London to do, besides book a flight immediately? Happily, there are a few elements of the exhibition that can be enjoyed at home.

First, there is Dickens: Dark London, an app for iPads and iPhones. Described as “an interactive graphic novel” based on Dickens’ late night walks about the city as described in Sketches by Boz, it includes narration by actor Mark Strong, and marvelously atmospheric drawings by illustrator David Foldvari. Also included is an 1860s map of the terrain overlaid with a current one for the viewer to navigate, as well as other interactive features. The first edition focuses on Seven Dials, with more material due to be added in subsequent editions each month through June 2012, echoing the serial publication by which most of Dickens’ work initially appeared. (NYT, Reuters)

Second, a facsimile edition of the original hand-written manuscript of Great Expectations is due to be published this month by Cambridge University Press. Crammed with crossings-out and scribbled-in additions, it enables a glimpse into Dickens’ creative process. See a detailed description and a slide show of some of its pages in the Guardian. For the frisson of seeing Dickens’ words in his own handwriting firsthand, a visit to the exhibition to see the original is still in order. But what luxury to be able to acquire a facsimile of it to study in leisure at home.

So, if a trip to London is not currently in the cards, a trip to the app store and/or the bookstore may provide some consolation.

New on my Bookshelf: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

I’m a big fan of Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant comics, and am most pleased to have acquired a copy of her new book, published this Fall by Drawn & Quarterly.

It was Beaton’s comics poking fun at exalted literary figures such as the Brontë sisters that first caught my eye:

And I was further drawn in when I found that Beaton also appears to share my preoccupation with crime fiction classics such as Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes. See, for example, a few samples from a series that she did riffing on the covers of Nancy Drew novels:

And this one, in which she has a bit of fun with TV/movie portrayals of Holmes sidekick Watson:

If that’s not enough to pique the interest of legal readers, you’ll also find in Beaton’s oeuvre a plethora of comics devoted to history, some with a legal dimension (see this deft summation of the genesis of Oscar Wilde’s legal troubles), and many with a Canadian focus (for example, here on Confederation). Indeed, my colleague Sonia Lawrence tells me that she has contemplated using Beaton’s comics in her constitutional law class.

For more information about Kate Beaton and her book, you can find recent interviews on CBC and in the Paris Review, and enthusiastic reviews in the National Post and Quill & Quire.

New on my Bookshelf: The Ecstasy of Influence: nonfictions, etc. by Jonathan Lethem

The Ecstasy of Influence is a voluminous collection of Jonathan Lethem’s nonfiction, much of it previously published in scattered locations, some of it new. He covers a diverse range of subjects–a quick scan of the table of contents indicates that he touches on comics, postmodernism, used bookshops, Philip K. Dick, The Godfather, Bob Dylan, book tours, Shirley Jackson, Brooklyn, and more. There’s plenty here to interest fans of Lethem’s fiction, and bookish types generally.

But perhaps most likely to capture the attention of those of us interested in law and the arts is the section headed “Plagiarisms” that includes the title piece, an essay about plagiarism in which nearly every sentence is lifted from another writer (originally published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007); a follow-up piece reflecting on the stir that essay created; and other broad mediations on influence, appropriation, originality, and creativity.

For a bit of a preview of Lethem’s views on these and other literary matters, click here to read a recent interview with him conducted by Laura Miller for Salon. And I’m assuming that if you’re sufficiently interested in my bookshelves to read this post, you’ll also enjoy a peek at Lethem’s library. For that, click here to see fabulous photos of writers’ personal libraries, including Lethem’s, from Leah Price’s Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, excerpted today in The New Yorker.

Of course, now I feel compelled to order Price’s book as well…

New on my Bookshelf: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

I confess that there are a number of classics in the law and literature canon that I’ve not yet read, and I’ve resolved to fill in some of those gaps, beginning with Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The number of law journal articles that reference the story, and the frequency with which it turns up on the syllabi of law and literature courses would be reason enough to begin there. But I have a more specific interest as well. I’ve been plotting an article about Louis Auchincloss’s short stories, many of which are set in Wall Street law firms, and, given that Melville’s Bartleby is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street,” it seems an antecedent that I ought to explore.

But even if I hadn’t already resolved to read Bartleby, a couple of recent mentions highlighting the continuing relevance of this mid-nineteenth century work would doubtless have piqued my interest. The first is in a thought-provoking essay by Hannah Gersen at The Millions in which she links Bartleby’s “peculiar form of rebellion” to the Occupy Wall Street protests, ultimately concluding: “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has—to unsettle.” The second is a reference in a Forbes column by Victoria Pynchon in which she parallels Bartleby’s situation with the contemporary plight of legal secretaries. (Thanks to Sonia Lawrence who led me to the latter with an @OsgoodeIFLS tweet.)

The edition of Bartleby the Scrivener that I bought, pictured above, is an instalment in Melville House Publishing’s marvellous Art of the Novella series. They’re lovely small books that feel good in the hand, and the selection of titles is broad enough to appeal to any discerning reader. I note as well that there are others besides Bartleby that are likely be of interest to those who like a bit of law with their literature, including, for example: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Ian Dreiblatt), The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain, and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I already boast a few Melville House novellas in my collection, and I covet many more!

I will report here in due course on how I fare with Bartleby, and on if and how it connects with my Auchincloss reading.

New on my Bookshelf: Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

My latest acquisition is a book that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for some time: Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. Why such excitement over a new biography of a figure as well known and much written about as Charles Dickens? I concede that I’m not expecting any grand new revelations on the eve of the 200th anniversary of his birth. But I’m something of a connoisseur of literary biography, and despite having delved into a number in my recent research on Dickens (you may recall that he’s the subject of a chapter in my book-in-progress on writers’ lawsuits), I haven’t yet found one that strikes quite the right balance for me. I’m hopeful that Tomalin’s new book will prove to be just what I seek.

What is it that I look for in literary biography? There are those who contend that writers’ work is all that matters, that their life stories are irrelevant, indeed, that knowledge of their lives may well impede rather than enhance appreciation of their work. I have some sympathy for that view. Certainly I would always put the work first. But, both as a writer and a reader, I’m deeply interested in process, in how the work that we value so highly was created. What were the material conditions within which the work was produced? How did the subjects develop as writers? Which authors and what books did they read along the way? Did they have collaborators, supporters, detractors, helping or hindering their work? If they drew on their lives in their work, how did they transform their experiences into literature? (On that last point, I hasten to add that I have little patience for simplistic quests to identify which real person a fictional character was based on, and so on. I believe that most writers find fodder for writing in their lives, but that good fiction is seldom a direct representation of experience but rather a transformation of it into something else, independent of its origins.) Thus whether or not learning about writers’ lives enhances my appreciation of their work very much depends on where biographers’ emphases lie in their explorations of those lives.

Based on Claire Tomalin‘s track record, I have high hopes that her biography of Dickens is just the sort that I would like to read. (Of her many highly-lauded biographies, her most recent, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, was a particular favourite of mine.) Certainly the reviews in the UK, where the Dickens biography has been out for a few weeks now, are promising. In the Telegraph, Judith Flanders writes that “Tomalin’s psychological analysis is acute, isolating that elusive something that made Dickens great [...] and when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial.” In the Guardian, William Boyd concurs and elaborates: “The work remains and endures – and Tomalin analyses the novels with great acuity – but what is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges.” In the Independent, Boyd Tonkin opines: “Even dedicated Dickensians will know, and understand, much more about the novelist after reading Tomalin’s close-packed but free-flowing narrative,” then concludes: “For the moment, she has captured Dickens, in sun and shadow, with all the full-hearted exuberance, generosity and keen wit that he merits.”

I’ll share my own views here once I’ve read it. In the meantime, if you fancy learning more about the book, click here to read an excerpt, and here to watch an interview with Tomalin about it. And below, you can find Penguin’s video introduction to the book in which Tomalin provides her own answer to the question of why another biography of Dickens seemed worth doing: