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1. As a child, Sigmund Freud was a good student who, aside from his native German, was also proficient in French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. He loved to read, especially works by William Shakespeare, which helped him understand human psychology.
2. While commonly known as one of history’s most famous psychiatrists, Freud was first and foremost a neurologist. 3. At the University of Vienna, he also studied philosophy as well as zoology. 4. Freud opened his first private practice specializing in nervous and brain disorders in 1886. He charged an astronomical fee of $25 an hour, which would today be equivalent to nearly $4,000. 5. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the Nazis burned many of Freud’s books, prompting him to note, “In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books.” 6. Harassed by the Nazis because he was Jewish, Freud fled from Vienna to London in 1938; his four sisters, however, stayed behind and eventually died in concentration camps. 7. Freud was a scientist and atheist, but that didn’t prevent him from being extremely superstitious. Based on his belief in the properties of certain numbers, he even predicted that he’d die at the age of 51. However, he lived until 83. 8. He started to use cocaine as an experiment to see whether it could cure his friend, Dr. Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow’s dependence on morphine. Freud reportedly stopped talking cocaine after 12 years, while his friend became addicted to it. 9. He immortalized the phrase “Freudian slip,” which he described as “a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder.” 10. Since Freud’s death in September 1939, his ashes have been kept in London’s Golders Green Crematorium, in an ancient Greek urn gifted to him by a friend. After his wife Martha died in 1951, her ashes were also placed there. In 2014, the 2,300-year-old urn was severely damaged when thieves tried—but failed—to steal it. SUGGESTED READING [table id=38 /]

1. As a child, Sigmund Freud was a good student who, aside from his native German, was also proficient in French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. He loved to read, especially work...

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s book Against Therapy turns the entire concept of the practice of psychotherapy on its ear. In fact, it might as well be on a deaf ear since Masson alleges that psychologists come to the couch with their own inherent preconceptions and prejudices, which will trickle down to the patient. The book was initially released in 1988 and, not surprisingly, stirred controversy at the time of its publication. The author is highly qualified in the field. Although he holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in a seemingly unrelated field of Sanskrit, he is also a Freudian analyst and former Project Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives. However, when Masson contended that Freud made a mistake by stopping to believe that sexual abuse was the cause of human suffering, he was fired from the archives and his membership in the international society was revoked. In the wake of this controversy, Masson penned multiple books expressing his disagreement with the therapeutic-psychiatric community. He felt that in the interest of professional appearance and convenience—since his theories were ostracized by his peers—Freud had not possessed the courage to stay on the correct path identifying women who'd been sexually abused as children and citing the dire implications for the psychiatric community. Masson's book addresses Freud’s infamous patient “Dora” and probes the once-renowned psychotherapist Carl Jung's Nazi connections. He also delves into Carl Roger's Humanistic Psychology. Rogers was considered the preeminent psychotherapist, heralded as the polar opposite of John Rosen or Albert Honig (whose horror story “treatments” Masson meticulously documented). But Rogers does not come away unscathed by Masson. “The faults of Carl Rogers … are not the faults of individual therapists; they are the faults of therapy per se. No amount of reform could abolish these faults, because they are endemic to the very nature of psychotherapy,” Masson writes. Masson staunchly avers that the concept of therapy is flawed and, therefore, should not be employed at all. To illustrate this point, he cites many cases where psychiatric patients were “treated” in an extremely abusive manner. The evidence amasses with each turn of the page, and the reader feels surprised, repulsed, shocked, and angry as the book moves along. The author asserts that the definition of what is normal in society is fluid and attempting to put one person into a mold is not only highly difficult but also wrong. Who are psychologists/psychoanalysts to judge another human being and their personal set of norms? Masson writes that his life “was in no better shape than that of my patients.” In fact, he maintains that a good friend is a much better confidante than a mental health professional. The PhDs and MDs are not always naturally empathetic, he argues, and taught responses might not be helpful and could actually exacerbate the patient’s condition. Masson supports this argument with numerous examples of therapists, who were unable to help their patients. In an updated version of the book, Masson responds to his critics. “I must address the concern, widely expressed, that I have not offered any alternative to psychotherapy,” he writes. “I have repeatedly expressed my resistance to being placed in the position of pretending to have a solution. I did not, and still do not feel that in order to criticize the current state of affairs in psychotherapy I must offer a better alternative.” Fair enough, yet the reader cannot help but feel at least a bit duped. It’s like watching a movie all the way through to find out who the killer was only to have the film end without bringing closure. The author has since ceased writing about the therapy issues, focusing instead on fiction and nonfiction books about animals, including his 2011 work: “Dogs Make Us Human.” This makes the reader wonder if perhaps, one day, our empathetic canines will prove to be the most successful “therapists” of all? If you go by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s philosophies from Against Therapy, they certainly could do no worse.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s book Against Therapy turns the entire concept of the practice of psychotherapy on its ear. In fact, it might as well be on a deaf ear since Masson alleges that psychologi...

Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett (Bloom's Modern Critical Views)
People who read serious literature for pleasure understand that the consolations of art sometimes require a bit of effort: decoding the chewy language of a Shakespeare sonnet, for example, or unpacking the psychological complexity of a Henry James novel. But most readers persevere, confident that the pleasure of discovery will outweigh the interpretative challenges along the way. But what about a writer whose work seems to mock the very idea that consolation—or pleasure—can be found in art? Or even in life?

There’s a word for such a situation: Beckettian. And among its various meanings is “literature aimed at revealing the way humankind invests itself in cultural structures and supports—literature, marriage, etc.—all of which inevitably fail,” exposing “how fragile these sustaining beliefs are.”

That’s the judgment of Jonathan Boulter on the ironically named Happy Days, a play by Samuel Beckett and one of the works explored in his Beckett—A Guide for the Perplexed, a comprehensive overview of the Irish dramatist, novelist, poet, and short story writer. Boulter’s take on Beckett is informed and provocative, though readers of this helpful volume should know it also relies heavily on the work of thinkers and theorists such as Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. Readers should, therefore, be prepared to tread some fairly deep philosophical waters occasionally. But this is Beckett, after all, a writer who took literature “as close as possible to the post-human condition.” Boulter, a professor of English at Western University, London, Ontario, is generally successful in unpacking for the reader some pretty chewy concepts, convinced that “deconstructionist psychoanalysis is the best way of proceeding with Beckett.”

The book is divided into two parts: drama, and prose. The dramas—especially Waiting for Godot, far and away Beckett’s best-known work—constitute Beckett’s quest for what he called “literature of the unword,” an attempt to use silence, gesture, and tableau to communicate the desperation of humanity’s dilemma: namely, that we’re all fated to go through life asking the questions we’ll never be able to answer. The only palliative available is not to articulate the questions at all. After reviewing all the major works of drama and prose, Boulter’s somber but intriguing conclusion is that “Beckett is a writer who wishes to eliminate the very thing—language—which defines him vocationally,” adding that Becket’s career can be seen as “a kind of sixty-year suicide attempt.” In Boulter’s reading of Beckett, every act of literary creation is also an act of negation, and however earnest our quest to derive meaning from artistic utterance, in the end (to quote one of his famous tramps), there really is “nothing to be done.”

A slightly different take—but just as helpful and a tad more easily digested—can be found in Rónán McDonald’s The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett. McDonald, who holds the Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne, doesn’t spend nearly as much time sifting the philosophical stream for nuggets of meaning. In fact, his Beckett is a writer whose work self-consciously resists such attempts. In what must surely be a comfort to anyone who’s sat through a Beckett play or read one of his novels, thoroughly flummoxed, McDonald assures the reader that “to engage fruitfully with Beckett’s works does not necessarily mean to 'decode' them or to figure out what they really mean underneath the obscurity.” McDonald is much more interested in the ways the plays and novels resist interpretation.

His analysis of Godot is clear and compellingly argued, and will likely illuminate any reader’s future encounter with Beckett on the stage. McDonald asserts that Godot is filled with lots of sly references to its own resistance to interpretation, and the dozens of allusions to theatre within the play are intended to remind the audience that what they’re watching is a false construction, a fruitless pantomime of meaning. He points out that the “meta-theatricality” of the plays, their numerous references to the theatre, create a kind of funhouse mirror “not seeking to reproduce real life in the manner of naturalist drama.”

He takes a similar approach to the novels, exploring how each work purposefully keeps the reader at arm’s length, denying even the basic pleasures of plot, character, or setting. In denying such fundamental narrative components, Beckett forces the reader to pay close attention to what’s not there rather than what is there, destroying in the process any notion of realism. Instead, Beckett’s prose “flaunts its own textual and constructed nature,” prohibiting any suspension of disbelief and reminding the reader that words that purport to offer clarity or closure are just that: words, not truths. In both McDonald’s and Boulter’s reading of Beckett, words are seen as the problem, as deceiving and ultimately meaningless as the “real world” they are supposed to represent. McDonald concludes his book with a discussion of a wide swath of critics’ words about Beckett, a detailed and reader-friendly overview of the shifting critical attitudes towards Beckett during the last fifty years.

That panoply of interpretation gets ample illustration in Samuel Beckett: Bloom’s Modern Critical Views. Introduced and overseen by the eminent critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Harold Bloom, this book—like the dozens and dozens of others which bear Bloom’s imprimatur—is a mixed bag, with no defining theoretical or critical school dominating its perspective. Instead, the collection covers the plays and prose with a divergent critical eclecticism. Bloom contributes a more lengthy introduction than is the norm for most of these volumes (Beckett has always been one of his favorite writers and seems to bring out some of Bloom’s most impassioned writing, right up there with Shakespeare, Joyce, and Whitman), focusing on the plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame, which Bloom calls “a larger play than any dramatist has given us this century.” The nine essays that follow the introduction are traditional academic essays, sometimes sounding like they are being written more for the professoriate than a general readership but they do provide a useful kaleidoscope of contemporary Beckett criticism.

And that criticism touches on everything from the influence of radio/tv/film in shaping his work (Martin Esslin’s “Telling It How It Is: Beckett and the Mass Media”), the role of the unconscious in Beckett’s work (“The Language of Dreams: The Anatomy of the Conglomerative Effect” by Lois Gordon), and even the writer’s preoccupation with colons, question marks, and other enigmatically employed punctuation (Hersh Zeifman’s “The Syntax of Closure: Beckett’s Late Drama”). One of the most illuminating essays—that is, one whose conclusions should help readers confused or put-off by Beckett’s signature lack of definitiveness, is Enoch Brater’s “Beckett’s 'Becket': So Many Words for Silence.” Brater notes:

An Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century, Beckett inherits a tradition of the half-light, the gloaming, a liminal world that is always on the verge of being recovered in some unspecified elsewhere halfway between perceived silence and arrested speech.

That perceived silence, or what Brater calls “the verbal equivalent of solitude,” is one of Beckett’s trademark qualities, and the essay does a good job of showing how such silences appear in works as diverse as Shakespeare and BBC radio dramas—both of which influenced Beckett’s mature style.

We readers can be grateful that a writer so dedicated to encoding silence has inspired generations of critics with so much to say about his work.

Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett Samuel Beckett (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views) People who read serious literature for pleasure understand that the...

The author of such literary classics as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (1882–1941) was one of Ireland’s most celebrated novelists known for his avant-garde and often experimental style of writing.
Michael Patrick Gillespie is a Professor of English at Florida International University and the Director of the Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment. He has written eleven books and numerous articles on the works of James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, William Kennedy, Chaos Theory, and Irish Film. His anthology of early Joyce criticism was published in the spring of 2011 as part of the University Press of Florida Joyce Series. He is currently at work on an oral history of early Joyce studies and on a book on Joyce and the experience of exile. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdOR31J3cXs

The author of such literary classics as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (1882–1941) was one of Ireland’s most celebrated novelists known for his avant-garde and often experimental sty...

With Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood, the life of Ernest Hemingway is revealed through the eyes of all four of his wives. In The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Hemingway’s Paris years are laid bare by the narrative of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. In Erika Robuck’s Hemingway’s Girl, the iconic writer’s years in Key West and Cuba, his years with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, are brought to life through the factual inspired young woman, Mariella Bennet.

In an interview with Ms. Robuck, she explained her inspiration for using this character: “While I looked through hundreds of old photos, I came across a photograph of Hemingway on the dock in Havana with a marlin and a crowd of onlookers around him. In the photograph, there were many poor fishermen and a young Cuban girl with an intense gaze. Then I read about a young woman with whom he became infatuated later in his life, and Mariella was born in my imagination.”

Mariella is the catalyst for the story. She is a young woman, just twenty, tethered to life by her mother, bitter and biting from the loss of her husband, Mariella’s father. Mariella too suffers from grief, and yet her mother’s apathy toward life compels Mariella to be a mother to her two younger sisters. From the start, the book reveals her acquaintance with Hemingway. Already she knows of his eccentric personality. When she becomes a maid in the Hemingway household, she becomes acquainted with his second wife, Pauline, once his mistress, and the whole entourage of people that always seem to surround Hemingway. She finds a household in chaos: Hemingway’s two young sons running wild, a cook overwhelmed by panic, and the Hemingways nowhere in sight. What she witnesses most startlingly of all, is the disintegration of a marriage.

Robuck ably reveals Hemingway’s roving eye, his flirtatious proclivity, as well as his unrequited desire for a girl-child, the reason he called so many young women ‘daughter.’ But Mariella fears his libidinous nature will endanger her employment, one she needs desperately to support her family, and yet she finds it hard not to feel the power of his charisma, “Mariella felt his eyes on her as she picked up the last towel and folded it. She heard him walk out the door and down the stairs and was surprised to find that she was holding her breath. She caught sight of herself in the mirror across the room and saw the flush on her skin and knew he’d seen it, too.”

In his dalliance with Mariella, a truth of Hemingway’s character is revealed, the nonchalant, entitled manner in which he used people, to whatever need he had at the time, “(Mariella) couldn’t help but wonder whether she was just an amusement for him—a diversion from boredom or routine. She didn’t like being used, but when he chose to dole out his attention, she knew of none who could refuse. Certainly not herself. She also reasoned that as long as they didn’t cross the line, it couldn’t hurt to play his little game.”

Soon, a young man, a soldier by the name of Gavin Murray, comes into the story. He’s a boxer, and his presence reveals both Mariella and Hemingway's love of the sport and their enjoyment of gambling on it. At first, the cut-away scenes with Gavin are disruptive, somewhat irrelevant and out of place to the story of Mariella and Hemingway—roadblocks on the intriguing path of the tale. Though through Gavin, Robuck illuminates the terrors of WWI, as well as the after-effects of such a trauma, “It’s an out of body experience…You’re inhuman. You haven’t slept or eaten properly in weeks. You’re soaked to the bone. You’re killing and killing, and crawling over the dead and dying. Your mind is blank. Purely fixed on a target. No emotion. No fear. Until your guys—your close buddies—go down. Then your mind turns on and you can’t think of the target, only of getting them out of there.”

For a goodly length of the book, the more romantic tale tends to dominate the story. Gavin’s interest in Mariella is instant and returned. Their mutual hardships bind them, make them kindred spirits. Mariella soon finds her heart pulled in two directions. Still, the declining scenes with Hemingway lift the book, not only the story but the tone of it as well: from sappy and light, to deeper and more insightful, “It was such a strange thing to be a living, breathing, feeling fly on the wall—in plain view but entirely unnoticed. It made her skin crawl to be a witness to such intimacy and have no connection to it. She derived no voyeuristic pleasure from the scene, only a mixture of emotions that left her unsettled—jealousy, anger, and guilt.”

While there are but a few insights into Ernest Hemingway’s career, when they come, they are crafted deftly, “It was a stark contrast to the noisy, angry days of the previous week, with Papa raging through the house about Scribners, and Cosmo, and his editor, Max Perkins, and being undervalued.”

While the first half of the book seems much more focused on Mariella and her budding romance with Gavin, the second half brings Ernest Hemingway more into the foreground. Once there, the depth of writing rises to the depth of insight, “His physique, his writing his strength—they’re how he defines himself—and when they go away one day, he will have nothing. He alienates too many and relies too much on himself.”

Ernest Hemingway is not the headliner of this tale (which, if he knew it, would be a severe blow to his highly sensitive ego). He is but one in a list of challenges facing young Mariella.

At times, Hemingway’s Girl is more romance novel than anything else, and, unfortunately, those passages tend to be written in a more simplistic, juvenile manner as befitting the subject matter. Far more enduring, far more worthy, are the brilliantly crafted passages with Hemingway; there is found great satisfaction in the work that lies simply in its lovely lyricism, “The sun wasn’t scorching them it warmed them. The wind wasn’t rough; it was brisk. Their hunger didn’t weigh them down it reminded them of the fish they’d fry in a little while. Their poverty was merely simplicity, and living simply was good.”

Hemingway’s Girl is uniquely different from the other recent novels about this enigmatic man. It’s unique perspective and insight, it’s frequent moments of extremely well-crafted prose make it, for the most part, a highly worthy addition.

With Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood, the life of Ernest Hemingway is revealed through the eyes of all four of his wives. In The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, Hemingway’s Paris years are laid bare by the...

 
Best known as the wife of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Clementine Ogilvy Spencer-Churchill served as one of her husband's closest confidantes, aiding him during his brightest moments as well as his darkest hours. During World War II, she led the Young Women's Christian Association's wartime efforts and also assisted in the Red Cross's efforts to provide relief in Russia.
Sonia Purnell is a political reporter who has worked for a number of high-profile newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Independent on Sunday, and the London Evening Standard. She is the author of Just Boris, an acclaimed biography of Boris Johnson, London’s exuberant mayor. Her latest book, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, explores the peculiar dynamics of the fascinating union between Clementine and Winston Churchill. She joins us on Culture Insight to share her insight into the life and work of Clementine Churchill.

  Best known as the wife of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Clementine Ogilvy Spencer-Churchill served as one of her husband’s closest confidantes, aiding him during his brightest...

1. The actual family name of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (1902-1968) was “Grossteinbeck,” which his paternal grandfather shortened to “Steinbeck” when he first came to the United States from Germany.
2. The Steinbeck family home in Salinas, California, was a modest home that reflected the family’s middle-class status. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father worked various jobs such as managing a local flour mill. The family did not reach true financial stability until Steinbeck was enrolled at Stanford. His modest upbringing largely influenced the everyman, working-class protagonists within his novels. 3. Illness and accidents plagued Steinbeck from an early age. He suffered from pleural pneumonia, kidney infection, detached retina, shattered knee cup, stroke, and back injury. 4. Before becoming an established writer, Steinbeck held a number of jobs, both in his native California and in New York, where he moved in the mid-1920s. He worked as a farmhand, painter’s apprentice, and construction worker. 5. Steinbeck’s first novels went unnoticed. It was his fourth work, Tortilla Flat (1935) that propelled him into the public’s eye.
John Steinbeck
6. Steinbeck preferred to write by hand than on a typewriter. It is said he used 300 pencils to write East of Eden. 7. Seventeen of his works were made into Hollywood movies. Steinbeck also tried screenwriting. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie, Lifeboat. 8. In 1947, Steinbeck traveled to the Soviet Union. His trip was one of the three travels he made to that country. Due to accusations of The Grapes of Wrath being a communist novel, coupled with his travels to the USSR, many suspected him of being a communist. He had been previously placed under FBI surveillance in 1940, the year after his novel was released. His trips to the USSR inspired A Russian Journal, where he wrote about his experiences in the Soviet Union. 9. Steinbeck owned several dogs throughout his life. One of them, a poodle, was featured in Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue, Travels with Charley. 10. Steinbeck died of heart disease on December 20, 1968, in his apartment overlooking East 72nd Street in New York.

1. The actual family name of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (1902-1968) was “Grossteinbeck,” which his paternal grandfather shortened to “Steinbeck” when he first came to the Unit...

1.Thomas Edison’s (1847-1931) full name is Thomas Alva Edison. He went by Alva all throughout his life until the end of his second marriage.
2. Edison received minimal education, only attending public school for twelve weeks. His humble learning experience was common in his day, a time when the average U.S. citizen attended 434 days of school throughout their entire lifetime. 3. After battling scarlet fever as a child, Edison suffered from hearing loss. In light of this, he constantly searched for ways to make his job as a telegrapher easier. Telegraphy required its practitioner to hear clicks and subtle sounds, most of which Edison could not hear. For this reason, he soon developed a printer that transformed electrical signals into letters. 4. He was the first person ever to project a movie. The film was shown at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in 1896. 5. Edison created a makeshift laboratory on a train he used to ride as a paper delivery boy. After a fire erupted during one of his experiments, the conductor hit him on the head and forced him to exit the train car after discovering the severe damage. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Thomas Edison Thomas Edison[/caption] 6. While staying in Boston, he created an electronic voting machine intended to tally political votes in a quick and efficient manner. The Massachusetts legislature denied its use on the floor as they wanted to give their opponents ample time to change their minds. 7. Edison first married a sixteen-year-old named Mary Stilwell. She bore him three children before dying of a suspected brain tumor at the age of twenty-nine. Two years later, at the age of thirty-seven, Edison married eighteen-year-old Mina Miller. 8. Edison had a deep disdain for the corporate, scholarly mathematicians and scientists who developed upon his initial works. He preferred to work in his humble shop with nothing more than a few apprentices. 9. In 1876, the Western Union Telegraph Company encouraged Edison to create a challenger to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, yet he never did. 10. The first words he uttered into his revolutionary phonograph were, “Mary had a little lamb.” This invention would later be used to play music to U.S. troops abroad during World War I.

1.Thomas Edison’s (1847-1931) full name is Thomas Alva Edison. He went by Alva all throughout his life until the end of his second marriage. 2. Edison received minimal education, only attending publ...

Many of us know the story of how Charles Darwin (1809–1882) took a five-year voyage aboard The Beagle to the Galápagos, where he found a variety of tanager birds equipped with different beaks—creatures that had adapted to living on different islands with beaks that resembled tools. He thought they were different species of birds, but an expert back in England revealed that they all belonged to the same family—the result of what Darwin would later call natural selection, one of the key mechanisms of his evolutionary theory. The story is just as famous as the one about an apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head or Ben Franklin attaching a key to a kite to collect electricity. For some reason, we tend to see the most prominent scientists as acting alone—Newton, for instance, was an eccentric who thought up calculus while walled up in a house during the Great Plague of London. Darwin was a loner too, studying quietly in his quarters aboard the Beagle when he wasn’t sketching birds and tortoises he encountered on the island. They always seem to be working in near isolation while tearing down the conventional perception of the world. Of course, as Darwin scholar Sandra Herbert explores in her book Charles Darwin, Geologist, this is all a bit far from the truth. While biographies today have to reveal a new and surprising facet of a person’s character if they want to appear on bookstore shelves, you might think of Herbert’s book as a biography of Darwin’s career in geology, rather than one of the man himself. But it includes a few good insights on the history of geology along the way, too. Few people would know that not only was Darwin trained in identifying minerals, but that he also reluctantly accepted a position as secretary of the Geological Society of London in 1838, which he held for three years (his excuse was that he was too busy writing the third volume of his travels in South America). It may also surprise you to know that the Beagle actually boasted a rather impressive library of books on geology (back then, a young science), which Darwin borrowed from and read voraciously in several languages. Thus, he was far from alone as he cultivated his ideas. Geology, the study of the Earth’s crust, had only recently branched off from mineralogy (the study of minerals), which came from chemistry. In the years following his voyage, he drew some intricate maps of coral reefs on the ocean floor. He also proposed a few theories about the origin of coal from prehistoric seaweed that he discussed in continuous correspondence with fellow geologists who often disagreed with him. While biographies tend to record experiences of their subjects and how these events shaped their work and personality, Herbert is much more interested in how Darwin’s career led him to publish Origin of Species. This book was, after all, the culmination of his life’s work, which introduced the theory of evolution to the world and influenced fields as diverse as medicine and computer programming, aside from being the unifying theory of biology and zoology. Along the way, Darwin was inspired by many people, both contemporary and long gone. French naturalist Georges Cuvier, for example, first introduced the idea that species become extinct, but Darwin found the reason extinction is both inevitable and critical for the continuation of life. Climate change, thought by many to be a new science, was actually contemporary to Darwin, and gaining traction as a theory for explaining mass extinctions. While we often think of Darwin as a dreaming idealist (perhaps that was more accurate of Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus), Herbert shows a man who was primarily concerned with evidence while laboring away on his theory. He held geological evidence to be of greater importance than the work of biologists at the time, as geological strata and fossilized specimens revealed a chronology of developing life on Earth. Darwin was also an enthusiast of fossils and often consulted with English biologist Richard Owen (who famously coined the word “dinosaur”), for his expertise in the days before paleontology became its own branch of science, independent from geology. While thinking outside the norm and breaking with convention are still admirable qualities, as is remaining skeptical, Herbert’s work shows that people are almost never alone when working within the scientific community. It’s a process that requires frequent collaboration (and often disagreement), between experts from a variety of fields—a continuous pursuit of knowledge where new ideas are constantly tested, and new fields grow to complement the new discoveries. While Origin does not estimate the age of the Earth (something that wouldn’t be described with accuracy until the mid-20th century), it was certainly a problem that Darwin and his contemporaries were interested in—how long it would take for life to evolve into its present form. Darwin gave an estimate of 300 million years, but he quickly realized that the beginning of life couldn’t account for the beginning of the planet (if it were once as small as a meteor), and perhaps this is a telling detail for Herbert’s biography. Although Darwin was right about evolution, he not only was wrong on occasion, but realized that there were limits to his own knowledge—that determining the age of the Earth was an area left to other branches of science, and that there are limits to how much knowledge we can acquire over a lifetime. However, the discoveries and contributions will always outlast us, leaving the door open for more discoveries to come.

Many of us know the story of how Charles Darwin (1809–1882) took a five-year voyage aboard The Beagle to the Galápagos, where he found a variety of tanager birds equipped with different beaks—cre...

When investigating the life of a scientific genius such as Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), it is often difficult to know when or where to begin. In his 84 years, Newton distinguished himself as a preeminent physicist, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, alchemist, and (some would even say) theologian. His contributions to science regarding the laws of motion, universal gravitation, differential calculus, the light-spectrum of colors, the law of cooling, the principles of momentum, and the origin of the stars touched the lives of those around him in his own era and for centuries to come. To paint a portrait of such a man is a daunting and exhausting task, and yet A. Rupert Hall (who died in 2009) had succeeded in doing just that.

In Isaac Newton: Adventurer In Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1996), Hall—who was a prominent British historian of science—had taken great pains to put flesh around the mathematical myth of Newton, to give his extreme mental powers a personal context and catalyst for Newton’s life and innovations. The final product is no “Newton For Dummies,” but a thoughtful, provocative, considerate, and calculating analysis of who Newton was, what social forces influenced him, how he responded to his environs, why he chose the paths he did, and what consequences came from his efforts. 

Recognizing the great research predating his examination, Hall supplemented his conclusions and speculations with the investigations and proclamations of other scholars on Newton’s private life to deepen the reader’s understanding of the man. As Hall stated, “There is no single key to understanding Newton, no single source or stream of knowledge to which he applied his unique mental powers” (Hall, xiv). Hall recognized that Newton was a complex man of complex thoughts with a complex life during a complex time. Thus, through careful consideration of contemporary and ancient biographers, along with his own thorough investigation, Isaac Newton: Adventurer In Thought is a powerful resource for historians and scientists alike.

In logical and evidential fashion, Hall’s biography follows the timeline of Newton’s life, touching upon the most important moments and periods of development for the prestigious scientist—his childhood and young adulthood through college; professorial relationships with the University of Cambridge and his peers; further development into an outstanding scientific pioneer and scholar; activities and advancements as an established gentleman in academia and greater English society; and extra-curricular investigations of alchemy and theology through his middle and golden years. Hall’s timeline is predictable, but his approach and delivery are powerful and resonant. The reader comes to understand not just what Newton did, but, more importantly, the reasons behind his actions (or at least as much as can be fathomed from the writings and words of this all-too-often enigmatic, eccentric, and taciturn natural philosopher).

With such a rich, fulsome account, one can point to more than a few examples of the depth of this tome. Hall’s timeline for Newton’s transition from childhood to early adulthood is fascinating, albeit too brief; however, considering the desire for more historical and literary evidence of Newton’s youth, what is presented is more than sufficient. Perhaps in good writing form, Hall had just fanned the flames of future interest and investigation of young Isaac Newton: “It seems strange that (unlike Butler, and Somerset Maugham in his finest novel) Newton's biographers have generally spent little pity on his (probably) loveless and lonely childhood, while expatiating on the twists that this may have introduced into his personality” (Hall, 4-5).

Throughout the rest of the book, Hall continued this supposition that both the external and internal factors had a quantifiable effect on Newton’s activities and mental machinations. The author takes the reader on a very personal journey of investigation, highlighting the key moments with in-depth insights that brought Newton his great success and fame. Delightfully, the reader is provided a vicarious opportunity to work through Newton’s scientific process while enjoying the fruits of his great discoveries.

Regarding Newton’s contributions to mathematics, Hall stated, “The important and certain truth is that at this early stage of his mathematical development Newton had forged the key to open one wide door to his inventions” (Hall, 34). Concerning the physicist’s work in optics, “The notes support Newton's contention in that letter that he was greatly surprised to find the spectrum markedly oblong, rather than round; but the letter concealed the fact that the reason for its shape was at once evident to him from his earlier discovery of the unequal refraction of red and blue rays” (Hall, 48). As far as Newton’s astronomical investigations, Hall wrote, “Newton, here combining an inheritance from both Descartes and Galileo, recognized a simple celestial law of centrifugal conatus, always proportional to the inverse square of the planet's distance from the Sun” (Hall, 62). And about Newton’s studies on gravity, Hall noted, “To banish God from Nature is in effect to deny his existence; many years later Newton returned in both the Principia and Opticks to the contention that a true natural philosophy must prove God's perpetual maintenance of Nature, forming and reforming the parts of the universe” (Hall, 75). Even more intimate quotations could easily be added from Hall’s in-depth exposition on Newton.

One of the fascinating sections of Isaac Newton: Adventurer In Thought is Chapter Nine, about the “Private and Public Life, 1685-1696.” Perhaps more than anywhere else in this book, this chapter provides a glimpse of the human, sometimes-mundane and sometimes-insane, side of the great scientist. Still, by “fleshing out the man,” as mentioned earlier, Hall managed to foster compassion for his subject as a very human and emotional person having to deal with the common scenarios and problems of all humanity—money, friendship, rivalries, spirituality, exhaustion, frustration, etc. For example, “Newton in the early 1690s may already have laid this difficulty before such intimate friends as Locke, who certainly knew what Newton's private opinions were. The difficulty may have impeded Newton's appointment to a post in the service of the State before 1696; the breakdown might have been the price paid for a decision not to place scruple before preferment, which permitted his move to the Mint in 1696. It should be added, however, that never in his life was Newton—or Boyle or Locke—out of communion with the Church of England” (Hall, 245).

In the end, Hall’s biography of Sir Isaac Newton successfully presents a full historical account of the man (even Hall’s appendices deserve commendation), but life is more than just dry historical events. There are also emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual elements at play throughout Newton’s life, and Hall does a thorough and effective job in lifting the veil of mystery regarding these forces pushing and pulling upon Newton from childhood to deathbed. Considering the quality of analysis, the evidence examined, the careful balancing of implication and inference, and the honest appraisal of a very human scientific monolith, A. Rupert Hall’s Isaac Newton: Adventurer In Thought is a must read. 

When investigating the life of a scientific genius such as Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), it is often difficult to know when or where to begin. In his 84 years, Newton distinguished himself as a pree...

With so many biographies of George Washington available, it is not so much a matter of having something new to say but approaching the subject from a singular perspective: a biography with a thesis. David O. Stewart, the author of well-received biographical studies of Aaron Burr and James Madison, argues that George Washington emerged out of the fraught conflicts with the French in colonial North America, and during many years in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, as a master politician—the greatest politician this country has produced.  In his early twenties, Washington quickly established himself as a national public figure, distinguished by his bravery and commanding martial appearance, if not by military victories. In fact, he was rash and impolitic; demanding offices and commissions that his British lords and masters rejected. He offended the Royal Governor of Virginia and sulked his way into fame. Unusually tall and an excellent horseman, he looked the part of a leader, even if the actual record of his accomplishments remained unimpressive. Stewart astutely shows that Washington carried himself like a hero and that American colonials projected into him the very virtues of leadership that he had yet to perfect. How did an irascible young man on the make without, to begin with, a fortune or high pedigree, ascend the political ladder? He married well and was lucky that neither bullets nor his rashness brought him down. Stewart contends that quitting the military and entering the House of Burgesses changed him. Washington had to learn his place, work behind the scenes with other legislators, and understand the process by which laws were passed and people governed. He was not well educated and wisely refrained from many public utterances. When he did speak, he was well informed and measured. He seemed to have realized that it did no good to alienate his superiors and that it was much better to present himself as in service to others and work for the public welfare, not his career. In short, this was an ambitious man who studied how not to look too ambitious. Like Cary Grant, he understood it was better to be pursued than to come across as a pursuer. This analogy is not far-fetched. Stewart makes a big deal about Washington’s attraction to the theater and actors and that he learned how to stage his entrances and exits to create the desire to see more of him. Stewart does not make the connection, but I think Washington’s interest in uniforms—he designed several of his own—may also have derived from his avid theater-going and observation of the costumery of character. Like another fellow Southerner, William Faulkner, Washington showed up in uniforms even when they were not particularly called for. Here is where Stewart’s wit comes into play when Washington came to Philadelphia to attend the Second Continental Congress in May 1775: 
The image of Washington in full uniform, striding the streets, socializing, and attending congressional sessions, carries the strong whiff of a man intent on high command. Possibly he wore the uniform to show his commitment to the cause, although the image calls to mind the guest who arrives with a guitar slung over one shoulder, desperately hoping that someone will ask for a song. Yet no delegate seems to have found the uniformed Washington ridiculous. Despite statements about how unworthy he felt for command, he pursued that command avidly.
There were objective reasons not to laugh at Washington. He had more military experience than any other American colonial. He had civil courage, as well, standing by American protests against taxation without representation, with confidence that the British could be beaten. After all, he had seen plenty of examples of British ineptitude on the battlefield. The British never really understood that the American terrain would require a different kind of fighting, not in traditional rows and ranks that would be decimated in a kind of guerrilla warfare the colonists had learned from Native Americans.  While Washington craved power and position, he was also quite content to relinquish titles and privileges, which astounded his contemporaries, American and British alike. And this is where his politicking was most effective. He declined offices and appointments even as they were pressed upon him. He always had his establishment, Mount Vernon, to repair. (It often required repairs, neglected during his days in the military theater and later in the theater of national politics as the first president.)   Another factor in Washington’s rise that Stewart mentions, but is perhaps even more important than he acknowledges, is Washington’s willingness to go beyond his Virginia connections to forge bonds with men as different as Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette. The former was an immigrant from an undistinguished background that other founders like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams scorned. Virginians, as William Faulkner pointed out during his residence at the University of Virginia, are quite proud and even snobbish about their primacy in both Southern and national history, and yet Washington seems to have been without those affectations.  Where Washington was a man of his time and region, Stewart points out, is in his ambivalence about slavery. Stewart can find no record of Washington’s doubts about slaveholding before the American Revolution. He owned, physically punished, and aggressively went after runaway slaves; managing something like 700 of them at Mount Vernon—about the same number of African American soldiers under his command at Valley Forge. Only when teamed with Lafayette—another crucial friendship that Stewart might have emphasized a little more—did he see the shame of owning human beings; a shame that could be assuaged, Lafayette argued, by freeing them. While it is true Washington freed slaves in his will, Stewart sees Washington’s reluctance to do more to abolish slavery as, of course, a moral lapse but in terms of the biographer’s thesis also a tremendous political failure: 
The slave system posed the greatest test of Washingtons political skills. For virtually all his life, he failed it. He made no public statement nor took any public action that questioned the legitimacy of slavery, fearing that it would upend the republic for which he sacrificed so much. On the most pressing moral question facing the nation, its greatest leader did not lead.
While Washington had political capital, he was not willing to expend it on behalf of African Americans. Stewart does not make the point, except in references to schemes that would resettle slaves in Africa. Washington, like another of Stewart’s subjects, James Madison, could not envisage a society founded on racial equality. Stewart is right in his conclusion that George Washington “established a model of wisdom and integrity by which every successor would be judged,” yet that model has not been enough to rectify what Stewart calls, in a chapter title, this nation’s “Wrestling with Sin.”

With so many biographies of George Washington available, it is not so much a matter of having something new to say but approaching the subject from a singular perspective: a biography with a thesis. ...

1. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a heavy smoker, and reportedly smoked up to three packs of cigarettes per day.
2. He was a notorious womanizer and had numerous affairs, including a long-term relationship with the philosopher and feminist Simone de Beauvoir. 3. Sartre was once arrested and imprisoned in Germany for participating in the French Resistance during World War II. 4. He was offered the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but declined the honor, stating that he did not want to be "institutionalized." 5. Sartre was an atheist, and his philosophy of existentialism was heavily influenced by the work of Friedrich Nietzsche.
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6. He was an avid chess player and was known to spend hours playing the game. 7. Sartre was a vegetarian and involved in animal rights activism. 8. He was a left-wing political activist and supported Marxist ideology. 9. Sartre's plays and novels were widely popular and were often performed in Parisian theaters. 10. He was born with a form of congenital blindness called retinitis pigmentosa, which caused him to have poor eyesight for most of his life. SUGGESTED READING [table id=61 /]  

1. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a heavy smoker, and reportedly smoked up to three packs of cigarettes per day. 2. He was a notorious womanizer and had numerous affairs, including a long-term relat...

Tesla: Wizard at War is a meticulously researched and elegantly written exploration of the life and work of the iconic inventor and electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla. From his earliest days as a young engineer in Europe to his later years as a maverick scientist and inventor in the United States, the book provides a rich and nuanced portrayal of one of the most brilliant minds of the modern age. The book begins with a detailed account of Tesla's formative years, highlighting his many contributions to the field of electricity and technology. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the discussion of Tesla's work on what he referred to as his "death beam," a particle beam weapon that he claimed could be used to defend countries against attack. While the weapon was never fully developed or tested, the book does an excellent job of delving into the science behind it and the controversy surrounding its potential use. In addition to covering Tesla's technical achievements, the book also explores the personal life of the inventor. The author paints a vivid picture of Tesla as a complex and sometimes eccentric individual, with a deep passion for his work and a fierce drive to succeed. Tesla's relationships with other notable figures of the time, including Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, are examined in depth, providing insight into the sometimes fraught dynamics within the world of 19th and early 20th-century science and technology. One of the great strengths of Tesla: Wizard at War is the way it situates Tesla's work within the broader historical context of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book does an excellent job of explaining the scientific and technological advancements of the time and how Tesla's work fit into this landscape. It also explores the social and cultural factors that shaped Tesla's career and the reception of his work, offering a rich and nuanced view of the man and his achievements. But Tesla: Wizard at War is not just a dry recitation of facts and dates. The book is infused with a sense of excitement and wonder at the possibilities of science and technology, and at the sheer genius of its subject. The author does an excellent job of bringing Tesla's work to life and of conveying the thrill of discovery and innovation that drove the inventor throughout his career. Tesla: Wizard at War is a beautifully written and deeply researched book that provides a detailed and engaging look at the life and work of Nikola Tesla. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of science and technology or in the life of one of the most brilliant minds of the modern age. The author does an excellent job of presenting the material in an accessible and engaging way, making it a great choice for both experts and laypeople alike. Whether you are a seasoned historian or simply a curious reader looking to learn more about one of the greatest minds of all time, Tesla: Wizard at War is a book that is sure to captivate and educate.  

Tesla: Wizard at War is a meticulously researched and elegantly written exploration of the life and work of the iconic inventor and electrical engineer, Nikola Tesla. From his earliest days as a young...

1. Contrary to popular belief, the “father of modern science,” Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), did not invent the telescope. The telescope’s creator was actually Hans Lippershey, a Dutch eyeglass maker. Lippershey invented the telescope in 1608 and Galilei forged his own version the following year.
2. Galileo practiced astrology and interpreted horoscopes. During his time, astrology had not yet completely separated from astronomy; as a matter of fact, it was taught as a subject in many Italian universities. Galileo spent much of his time teaching students and family members about the superstitious activity, even earning payments for his instruction and predictions. 3. He was sentenced to life in prison. During the Roman Inquisition in 1632, Galilei had published Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems, a book that compared the Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system. Though he did not suggest that Copernicus’ view of the solar system was correct, the Roman Catholic church deemed him a heretic for teaching that the sun was at the center of our solar system. He was ordered to recant his position and was promptly thrown into prison. 4. Galileo never married his longtime partner, Marina Gamba. The pair had three children together, yet they never even shared a home. Most scholars in his era remained single, and Galileo followed suit. 5. He was a skilled artist. Galileo was known for painting the gripping discoveries he found within the night sky. He utilized a unique style that can be classified as a forerunner to the impressionism of the 19th century. 6. Though he was sentenced to life in prison, Galileo spent his final years at home under house arrest. Since he was allowed to have visitors, Galileo hosted gentlemen such as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the poet John Milton in his home. 7. Galileo and the great playwright, William Shakespeare, were born in 1564. Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline, makes reference to Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s four moons. 8. In 1638, Galileo lost his eyesight. He managed to publish one final book before his sight was completely gone, Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences. 9. Since the 19th century, his middle finger has been displayed at various Italian museums. After being dishonorably buried by a side chapel in 1642, Galileo’s remains were transferred to the honorable Santa Croce basilica in Florence, Italy, nearly 100 years after his death. During this transfer, some bones were removed from his corpse, which led to his finger being put on display for the general public to oddly admire. 10. After eight years of house arrest, Galileo died in his home on January 8, 1642. He was 77-years-old.

1. Contrary to popular belief, the “father of modern science,” Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), did not invent the telescope. The telescope’s creator was actually Hans Lippershey, a Dutch eyeglass m...

Maurice Ravel, the gifted composer, pianist, and trendsetter, was sui generis: a remarkable genius of refined sensibilities. Music teacher and writer Roger Nichols, the author of a wonderful new biography of Ravel, employs the French word pudeur to describe the composer. Pudeur is a noun that is defined as a “sense of modesty, decency, propriety; a sense of shame, especially in sexual matters.” Nichols follows the example of his subject, producing a graceful biography. Born in 1875 in St. Jean de Luz, Ravel grew up in France’s Basque country. His mother, uneducated like many women of the day, came from a family of Basque fish-vendors while his father was an engineer who became successful and wealthy. From the outset, there was no question what direction Ravel’s career path would take. He was a child prodigy, displaying a musical ability at a very young age. He attended the Conservatoire in Paris, where the composer Gabriel Fauré was his teacher. Fauré wrote short compositions called “miniatures,” and his status was built on the foundation of chamber music and song settings of symbolist poems. His musical goal was to “shrink the units of which music was constructed and to aim for an effect on the listener’s feelings that would be more direct, more immediate, and above all more momentary.” Fauré’s musical philosophy rubbed off on the young Ravel. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="457"]Maurice Ravel Maurice Ravel[/caption] Nichols points out that Ravel’s genius had a lot to do with his exceptional energy—focused, analytical, and imaginative energy yoked to original thought. After leaving school, Ravel immersed himself in his music, writing songs, orchestral arrangements, and piano music. His works, the author, writes, reflect a rich voice, under exquisite lilting control. To listeners, the music manifests itself as emotionally powerful and visceral. Ravel premiered his four-movement orchestral suite, Rapsodie Espagnole, on March 15, 1908, in Paris. Though it was tagged as “symphonic,” it consisted of four short parts. One critic compared the Rapsodie to a painting, saying  “It was not mere impressionism, but ‘pointillisme’ in music . . . Mr. Ravel throws in tiny dabs of color in showers upon his canvas. There is not an outline nor an expanse in the sketch; everything is in spots.” Ravel’s dabs of color were the result of two influences: first, his time spent learning his craft under Fauré; second, Ravel loved to visit cabarets, where he discovered that the logic of music eschewed long-windedness and that the relation between music and emotion relied more on tone and color than upon counterpoint. Essentially, what Ravel did was distill music into its components, and then he put it back together, combining his classical training with trends from popular music. This amalgamation of different music styles—a delicate balancing act—was unique to France at this time. Ravel, Debussy, and Satie were the avant-garde modernists of their era. Nichols examines every aspect of Ravel’s life, personal and public. He diplomatically circumvents the widely held belief that Ravel was homosexual. Any residual oddments of suspicion regarding the composer’s sexual proclivities are left suspended in the air. Nichols does, however, grant that as far as anyone knew, Ravel was never intimate with a woman but, though no details are provided, he had intense friendships with many men. Near the end of his life, Ravel came face to face with personal cataclysm. Undermined by a brain disease that has still not been identified, Ravel retained the ability to hear music in the orchestra of his mind, but he couldn’t put it down on paper. Eventually, he elected to undergo surgery to resolve the problem, but he died shortly after the operation. He was only 62 years old. In Ravel, Nichols gives his readers a fascinating look into the world of music, both as business and as performance. It is a delight to read, the kind of biography that makes readers shudder, cry, laugh, and cheer. The reader comes away with a sense of imminence about a man and his music. On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from one star (pathetic) to five stars (superb), Ravel deserves five melodious stars.

Maurice Ravel, the gifted composer, pianist, and trendsetter, was sui generis: a remarkable genius of refined sensibilities. Music teacher and writer Roger Nichols, the author of a wonderful new biogr...