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At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 12
Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. The State of the Grand Historical Narrative
2. Elizabeth the Author
3. Better to Light the Page than Curse the Darkness
4. The Ig® Nobel Prize for Literature
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Production Notes
8. Blue Underlined Words

1. The State of the Grand Historical Narrative
In 1999, among the weight-loss and empowerment guides that appeared on the nonfiction hardcover bestseller list, three of the 15 books were histories ( There is a history book on almost every nonfiction bestseller list, and there has been for about as long as there have been bestsellers. But the interesting thing about bestselling histories is that they are almost never written by historians. Two of the 1999 books were written by Tom Brokaw and the other was co-written by Peter Jennings. The grand narratives of history are generally written by journalists.

It has been this way for a long time, but it hasn't always been this way. Even as I was just entering graduate school, the field was still influenced by grand historical narratives by such giants in the profession as Samuel Eliot Morison, Richard Hofstadter, and William Appleman Williams (the latter was pretty radical, and offered a narrative that presented the U.S. as monstrously greedy and exploitive, but it was still a grand narrative).

I often puzzle over why today's historians so studiously avoid answering the public's insatiable desire for sweeping historical narrative, leaving the task (and the rewards) to journalists and entertainers. I used to believe this was attributable to science envy, i.e., the hope that presenting history in an arcane, inaccessible style would give the field the kind of respect generally reserved for rocket scientists and brain surgeons.

But I just read an article in The New York Times that gave me a different perspective. It's not as simple as I thought. The legacy of the 1960s and 1970s in history is the fragmentation of the narrative. The various liberation movements of that time created a drive for "authentic" voices in history. Now historians no longer develop the history of the nation. They are all working on the histories of the groups previously relegated to the margins of history: ethnic groups, women, gays. History has become a series of microstudies. And the history of the disenfranchised is where all the action is, because it affords the greatest opportunity for discovery.

The Times article quotes at least one defender of microstudies (Linda Kerber of the University of Iowa) as being an essential step in the development of a new grand narrative. "The grand old theories we inherited were fragile and poorly researched," she says. Kerber believes the profession is just entering an "explosion of knowledge that is revolutionizing the profession."

It remains to be seen whether diversity scholarship can ultimately give us as unified a narrative as the one it is trying to replace. It's tempting to think of the grand historical narratives of yesteryear as being the work of complacent white guys, but in fact most of them were revolutionary in their day and anything but complacent. Theirs was a sort of popular revolution and it fired imaginations and touched the lives of ordinary people. The revolution that replaced them, however, was practically invisible to nonspecialists. Now there are hints of a new, visible revolution to come. The article that launched me into this rumination is at Note that The Times requires registration.

2. Elizabeth the Author
Speaking of history... "I trust you likewise do not forget that by me you were delivered, whilst you were hanging on the bough ready to fall into the mud, yea to be drowned in dung." This is from a reply by Elizabeth I to Parliament in the 16th century when it petitioned her to marry and ensure a successor to the throne. Clarity, cadence, imagery, and humor... not bad for an essentially political document.

Elizabeth I was such a great and distinctive literary stylist that a small group of scholars is attempting to make her work the object of literary instead of merely historical study. Three of them have spent the past 12 years running down specimens of the monarch's writing, authenticating them, and collecting them. The result is Elizabeth I: Collected Works, published by University of Chicago Press. The collection spans 44 years of Elizabeth's life and includes 24 speeches, 15 poems, 39 prayers, and 103 letters.

There are no original drafts of Elizabeth's work. The editors of Collected Works say this is because so much was done orally in the period, that Elizabeth often made her speeches extemporaneously or improvised from notes. Someone would create a transcript, and that was what ultimately worked its way into print, often edited by people anxious to control the history. Some scholars say this undermines the study of Elizabeth as an author, because everything that has come down to us reflects a sort of collective authorship. The editors of the new collection say that the work they have included shows how Elizabeth allowed herself to appear in print. Their goal is to have Elizabeth's work take its place in the literary canon, alongside that of Shakespeare and Donne. Nobody pretends she is their equal as an author, but they say she influenced literature and thought in fundamental ways.

I found the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (for September 22, 2000), you can read it on the web if you have a subscription:

3. Better to Light the Page than Curse the Darkness
If you keep getting tangled up in the power cord of your portable book light or find its batteries are always going dead, you may be interested to know that an inventor in Scotland has developed a book page that creates its own light. Janos Hajto, an engineer at Napier University in Edinburgh, combined the polymers of a thin plastic sheet with a light-emitting dye. This makes a sheet that glows. He overlaid this sheet with another, largely opaque, sheet that has transparent printing on it, so the words glow with the illumination from the sheet below. "The molecules of dye take the surround light and convert it into any specific colour of light," says Hajto. "This amplifies the light signal and concentrates it, so when it is released it is up to 30 percent brighter than surrounding light." Hajto is also associated with a company called Freelight Systems, which developed a display for bus shelters that lets passengers read the schedules.

I'll append a URL where you can read the full story, but you won't find much more than I've given you here. Nevertheless, you may want to see the website anyway. It's a British news site called Ananova. The Brits could be having us on here, since "ananova" appears to be a Greco-Latin construction that means "against the new." But if it's a joke, it's an elaborate one. The site, whose most interesting feature is a green-haired, eponymous, computer- generated newscaster, gives no indication it is anything but serious:

4. The Ig® Nobel Prize for Literature
The Annual Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research. It is an actual journal, and you can find it at The Ig Nobel Prizes recognize "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced" in categories like psychology, chemistry, medicine, biology, economics, and so forth. And just like its more established counterpart, the Ig Nobel Prize committee awards prizes for literature and for peace.

As book lovers, you have no doubt been anxious to find out who won the prize for literature. It is Jasmuheen (née Ellen Greve), author of Living on Light. Jasmuheen is a Breatharian. She claims not to have eaten any food for four years, and she says people don't actually need to eat food if they can tap directly into the universal life force, prahna.

Whether or not it is real, Breatharianism appears to be an actual movement ( One of the leading Breatharians, Wiley Brooks, holds regular seminars.

[As an aside: those of us who write satire get frustrated by stuff like this. If I made up Breatharianism for a story, people would think it entirely too silly. So there's little left to do in the field of satire anymore, other than just pointing. The Ig Nobel Prize is a kind of "found satire," which may be the only future for the form.]

Jasmuheen suggests that more people doing without food would allay the problem of human starvation, which may sound a little like the current political wisdom that "today's imports increasingly come from abroad." Jasmuheen declines participating in any medical tests that might confirm her claim, but she says she is willing to be the subject of a documentary film. Perhaps people will be satisfied with her authenticity by actually seeing her not eating. There is an interview with her by a debunking Australian journalist at

To the credit of the Breatharians, they never ask people to follow them. They just keep saying that not eating food is the right way for them. Jasmuheen explained it in the interview this way: "You can get your vitamins and nourishment from vitamins and minerals contained within food, or you can bypass food and hook into what we call the universal life force, which is prahna." Like a corporate press release, this statement provides much less information than it appears to. But then, you have to talk at a fairly general level in an interview. Presumably, if people want more detail, they can buy a book or a video or attend a seminar for $425 (which, by the way, includes meals -- who says the Breatharians don't have a sense of humor?).

There are about a dozen reader reviews of Living on Light over at, not all of which are favorable. The favorable review I found said the book is excellent, but it did admit that a few people have died following the method, which the reviewer attributes to their not doing it right. (If the method is to not eat anything, it's difficult to see how you could get that wrong.) Some of the rest of the reviewers were so enraged by the book they couldn't even spell properly.

You can find a link to the Ig Nobel Awards writeup at the Annals of Improbable Research website, which goes by the acronym HOTAIR ( But if you are wondering who got the Peace Prize, it was the British Royal Navy, which ordered sailors to stop using live cannon shells and practice their gunnery by shouting, "Bang!"

5. Messages to the Editor
On Mark Twain and U.S. Grant (Issue #11)
Well done.

One note: I believe Twain's autobiography to be perhaps the best ever written. It has been abused, misunderstood, overedited, suppressed, and generally booted about by critics and editors and publishers. It was written in a "modern" fashion long before Joyce or Pound or Beckett hit upon shattering the norms of narrative time. And it has one of the most poignant endings ever written, which Twain insisted be the ending, which wasn't allowed to be the ending for several editions. Even so fine a writer and editor as Bernard deVoto abused what might well be Twain's greatest book; which is, sad to say, largely unread.

Brian Doyle

[Editor's Note to Readers: Regular readers of At The Margin will probably recognize the name of Brian Doyle, who is our most frequent correspondent. His brief messages to this newsletter only hint at the powerful writer behind them. His essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The American Scholar, and a dozen other places. His most recent book, Credo, is a collection of personal essays about matters of faith. The preface for the book lists a number of his enduring beliefs, beginning with "I believe that there is a mysterious and graceful and miraculous Coherence stitched through this world" and ending with "I believe that love is our greatest and hardest work," but not before affirming his beliefs in the beneficent hilarity of children, the beauty of nature, and the virtue of the peanut butter- and-cheddar cheese sandwich as breakfast. The book is so graceful that even an atheist could love it. He reports he is about two thirds finished the writing of a book of literary essays, one of which concerns Mark Twain's autobiography.]

At The Margin has 725 readers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 724 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (

6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to

Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence:
The lake was cold, black, evil, no more than five hundred yards in length, scarcely two hundred in breadth, a crooked stretch of glassy calm shadowed by the mountainsides that slipped steeply into its dark waters and went plunging down.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence:
Of all the myriad dawns which had broken over the dark Wald this one was the most beautiful, because never before had nature been afforded so much assistance.

Nobody tried to guess this time.

The sentence is from The Darkness and the Dawn by Thomas B. Costain. Here's the whole paragraph:

Of all the myriad dawns which had broken over the dark Wald this one was the most beautiful, because never before had nature been afforded so much assistance. Three mounted figures occupied the crest of the hill: Macio of the Roymarcks, who had been the handsomest man on the plateau in his day, and his two daughters, both of whom were lovely enough to aid the sun in achieving a moment of transcendence. The morning vapors, which the natives called the rawk, had been dispelled and the long grass looked almost blue. The hills behind them were a rich blending of colors, gray and mauve and purple and even a hint of red. The silence was complete, as it should be at such a moment.

It's a romance (in the sense of "a novel or other prose narrative depicting heroic or marvelous deeds, pageantry, romantic exploits, etc., usually in a historical or imaginary setting" -- Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd Edition) first published in 1959 by Doubleday. It is about a man who escapes Roman slavery to join Attila the Hun, becomes disillusioned with slaughter, and converts to Christianity. Eventually, he finds himself a fugitive from both the Huns and the Romans.

Thomas B. Costain wrote dozens of romances, including The Black Rose, The Silver Chalice, The Last Plantagenets, The Three Edwards, and The Tontine. He was born in Ontario in 1885. He was a journalist and worked on several Canadian publications (including Maclean's Magazine), until he went to the U.S. to become a chief associate editor on the Saturday Evening Post. Then he was a story editor for Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. He co-founded American Cavalcade in 1937. He ended up at Doubleday in 1939, where he worked as an advisory editor until 1946. But in 1942, he published his first book, For My Great Folly, a romance dealing with the Anglo- Spanish rivalry of the 17th century. The book was a success, and from its appearance in 1942 until he died in 1965, he wrote more such books at the rate of about one a year. Somewhere along the way, he became an American citizen.

My research tells me that Costain's heroes are generally heroic and that they are generally upright types. Christianity seems to be involved, in one way or another, in most of his books. As you can imagine, this kind of work made his books excellent candidates for film-optioning. In the 1950s, Hollywood cranked out historicals and epics, particularly Christian epics, by the carload. I don't know how Costain did with film options, but The Black Rose was made into a movie in 1950 by Twentieth Century-Fox, and The Silver Chalice was made into one by Warner Brothers in 1955.

Costain wrote so many of these books that they are a staple of used bookstores. Hardback editions in readable condition are reasonably priced, but there are paperbacks available, too, as Avon published a number of mass market editions.

Those of us who regret never having been Promising Young Writers take some comfort in noting that Costain's first book appeared when he was 57.

7. Production Notes
I have set aside some space on my personal website (see the link below) for archiving At The Margin. It may take me until the end of the year to get the back issues on there, because I probably need to clean them up a little even before I create the HTML pages.

This is issue #12 of the newsletter, and it is time to think about changing the volume number. It took a while to get the schedule to its current state of reliability (i.e., monthly but otherwise charmingly erratic), so the dates on the first twelve numbers are sometimes close together and sometimes far apart. I propose that we do two more numbers in volume one (#13 in November and #14 in December) and then start volume two fresh in 2001 with #1. I think this would make back issues more browsable, since the number of the issue would correspond to the number of the month. I know from my days in magazines, however, that this kind of decision drives librarians crazy.

It's not that I think anyone is actually keeping a library of back issues of At The Margin, but I just thought I would check to see if this plan would make any unforeseen hardships for anyone. If it would, please let me know:

8. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

A Free Novel
Your editor has just redesigned his personal website, which offers a 218-page novel, Coolidge College, free to anyone who wants to download it. It has not been previously published in any form, and it is the funniest novel Floyd Kemske ever wrote.

NetRead is a portal site for publishers, booksellers, writers, printers, and contractors. It carries publishing news and a calendar of conferences and shows as well as a large quantity of resources: links to agents and media outlets, articles, a directory, a job/resume exchange, and so on. The links page is extensive, thoughtful, and descriptive. Registration is required, but we clicked right into some of the resources without registering or even accepting the site's cookies.

The Long Now Foundation
Computer scientist Daniel Hillis has been building a clock that will tick once a year, chime once a century, and disgorge a cuckoo once a millennium, all in order to help us get thinking on a different scale than the "faster/cheaper" model of progress. The prototype of the clock was scheduled to debut in January 2000, but the site hasn't been updated for a while, so we don't know its status.

How Things Work
How Things Work is the site of physics professor Louis A. Bloomfield, author of How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life. The website operates like a call-in show. People send questions, he answers them. The questions refer to things like metal in microwaves, carbonation in sodas, and so on. Don't confuse this site with How Stuff Works, a much more commercial site offering a lot of slick feature articles on how cars work, how fat cells work, and so on. Both sites are pretty interesting and informative.

Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet
LCRW is a "small press zine" published in May and October by Small Beer Press, which is described as "an international combine of the old order. We support communism and capitalism to further our end of 100% literacy rates and good taste in fiction." The website is often funny and always thought-provoking. The webmaster is Gavin Grant, whom ATM readers will remember as the author of "Adding a Middleman: Alibris," a special bylined story we ran in issue #8. Gavin also prepares The Annotated Browser, Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop's web- based newsletter.

If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.

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