In our media-saturated Age of Celebrity, it can be hard to fathom that there was once a time when people were not famous merely for being famous. While today we think of Oscar Wilde as an eminent playwright and novelist, he was one of the first self-made public figures, who crafted his persona and gained widespread renown long before he had done anything of much note. An early impetus behind his fame was a lecture tour he made to the United States in 1882, when he was only 27 years old and the author of one tepidly reviewed, self-published volume of verse.
Millions of readers love The Great Gatsby, but perhaps none more than Maureen Corrigan. In her enthusiastic new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, the NPR book reviewer and Georgetown University lecturer makes an impassioned case that Fitzgerald’s novel should be a strong contender for the “Great American Novel.” Fair enough. She also argues that while most educated readers have read the book, few have given it the consideration it deserves. In view of its enduring stature and sales, this is a hard claim to disprove, but, certainly, few of us have spent as much time with the novel as Corrigan, who, by her own estimate, has read Gatsby some 50 times.
I once belonged to a reading group where one member, no matter what book we were discussing, would invariably ask, “Who would you cast as . . . ?” In all fairness, he was a screenwriter, but his perennial need to graft the face of some Hollywood star onto a given character in a novel could be irritating. As I read Peter Mendelsund’s quirky and fascinating What We See When We Read, I came to the realization that this casting device may have been this reader’s imperfect way of visualizing what he was reading.
Like the Vietnam War a generation or so later, the Spanish Civil War was a localized conflict that took on global resonance. Major Western powers adopted an official hands-off policy toward the Iberian struggle between socialists and fascists, afraid to upset the fragile diplomatic balance in the uneasy Europe of the 1930s. Still, the bloody hostilities gained the wider public’s attention and sympathies, in no small part due to a coterie of impassioned journalists and intellectuals who took up the cause of Spain. In her meticulously researched and beautifully told new book, Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill refracts the turbulent events that took place between July 1936 and March 1939 through a prism of six such determined believers.
January 19 marked the bicentennial of Edgar Allan’s Poe’s birth and, predictably, publishers have observed the occasion with new books honoring the American master.British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd offers a scaled-down biography, Poe: A Life Cut Short, the latest in the Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series. Given the book’s concision, Ackroyd does an admirable job...