Many readers first encounter the work of Langston Hughes in school but may not revisit it much beyond that early exposure. A seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes lives on in a handful of widely anthologized poems, but the vast majority of his prolific output goes unread. His literary light has waxed and waned since his death in 1967, but the publication of the Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, as well as a new edition of his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, could help spur renewed interest in Hughes and his work.
After establishing that he’s not any of the Andy or Andrew Millers you might have heard of, this English Andy Miller introduces his ambitious vow to read 50 great books within a year—and, better still, to chronicle the struggles and discoveries involved along the way. This he does with candor and good humor
If you’re shopping for a book-obsessed guy or gal who geeks out over all things literary, then you’ve turned to the right page. The holiday selections featured below offer the sort of author anecdotes, book-related trivia and top-notch storytelling that bibliophiles are wild about.
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.
War and Peace. The very title incites both awe and no small measure of dread in many a reader’s heart. Indisputably one of the major achievements of the western literary canon—many would argue the greatest—Tolstoy’s masterwork is daunting in length and scope. At some 1,500 pages (depending on the typeface, of course), divided into 361 chapters, with nearly 600 characters, its sprawling narrative spans the eight years of Napoleon’s 1805-1812 invasion of Russia and beyond. It is a perennial bestseller, but how many who buy it actually read it?
This cloak-and-dagger account reveals the intriguing details of how the novel Doctor Zhivago came to be published during the height of the Cold War. Written by Russian poet Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago was kept under wraps by its author, who feared retribution from the Soviet government for the book’s critical portrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its tepid treatment of socialism.
In our 21st-century world, it seems disarmingly quaint that an entire printing of Dubliners was destroyed in 1912 for being obscene because James Joyce dared to use the colloquialism “bloody.” In the ensuing years, high-minded censors in both Britain and America continued to attack Joyce’s work, striving to keep his magnum opus, Ulysses, out of the hands of readers. Conventional minds were shocked by the book’s candid depictions of sexual and scatological matters and the “filthy” language Joyce used to portray them. The censors had the upper hand at first, but their campaign ultimately backfired, as the legal challenge to publish and distribute Ulysses transformed the culture and the laws that had tried to control it.
As 19th-century San Francisco evolved from a rowdy Gold Rush boomtown into the financial center of the American West, its rambunctious poets and writers—especially the self-styled Bohemians—sought to bring a skeptical, caustic, humorous Western voice to American writing that had been long dominated by the relatively staid literary eminences of Boston and New York.
When The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, it got a decidedly tepid reception. Reviews were mixed, sales were deeply disappointing. F. Scott Fitzgerald just couldn’t get it together to write anything serious, some critics said. The book seemed too ephemeral to many readers—ripped from the headlines, like an episode of “Law and Order” today.
Wild, irregular and free, Henry Thoreau cut a distinctive figure in 19th-century Concord, Massachusetts, whether carving “dithyrambic dances” on ice skates with Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne or impressing Ralph Waldo Emerson with his “comic simplicity.” More at home in the woods than in society, Thoreau began the first volume of his celebrated journals with a simple word that also functioned as his motto: solitude.