Hell 2.1, a small update

I left you in my exploration of the Encyclopedia of Hell pondering which version of the Faustus story was better: with or without his final redemption. Personally, I prefer without, because it offers greater dramatic opportunities. I also don’t like the notion of redemption: it seems like a “get out of Hell free” card. Christianity is the only religion I know of that offers this particular … (more–>)

Hell 2.0

I left you last time after finishing the letter D, in Miriam Van Scott’s Encyclopedia of Hell. I’m back in book form to take you through a few more entries in her exploration of the afterlife. But first a couple of additions to your reading material. First on the list is Alice Turner’s 275-page The History of Hell. It’s an illustrated guide to how Westerners have … (more–>)

What in Hell…?

Hades, you know, isn’t a place. It’s a guy. The Greek god of the underworld. His territory consists of a bunch of domains, including the rather unpleasant Tartarus, where souls – called shades – suffer eternal punishment. Hades wasn’t a fun god. If you weren’t getting your skin ripped off in Tartarus, life sucked in other ways. You moped about in the other domains, lethargically meandering … (more–>)

The sum of all knowledge

In his 2004 book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs tells of his quest to become “the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover. Right away, you can see the fly in this intellectual ointment: knowledge doesn’t equal intelligence. Jared Diamond, in his introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, credits the barely literate, ill-educated tribespeople of New Guinea as being … (more–>)

Putdownable books?

A recent article in The Independent said that J.K. Rowling’s new book and the abysmally-written 50 Shades of Grey were among the books most put down by readers as unfinishable. Putdownable. A description no author or publisher relishes. They joined titles like Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Ulysses, Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged and Catch 22 as books readers gave up the struggle … (more–>)

Midway in our Life’s Journey…

So begins The Inferno, the first of the three books that comprise Dante’s magnificent and complex work, The Divine Comedy.* It’s a rich, complex and challenging read. I have to admit I have not read it all – all three books that is – but I have made a mighty effort to complete Inferno in several editions. My problem is not comprehension, but rather distraction. Were this … (more–>)

Musing on Melville’s Poetry

I came across a poem last night that I had not read in the past (always a pleasant thing to discover something new in one of your books)*. It is by Herman Melville, an author I associate with novels and short stories rather than poetry. Yet he was surprisingly prolific as a poet, mostly in his later life. Poem Hunter lists 93 of his poems on … (more–>)

Shakespeare’s Lost Plays

Shakespeare’s canon, as it is known today, is incomplete. The Bard is known to have written several plays that were not, for various reasons, included in the First Folio printed shortly after his death. Other plays, several included in the third folio, were attributed to Shakespeare after that publication, but most are known not to have been written by him, and have since been rejected (called … (more–>)

The Pulp Renaissance

In the late 1950s, I came across a copy (1912; an original edition, I believe) of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first published novel, Tarzan, The Ape Man, on my parent’s bookshelf in the basement. A forgotten book, one my father had likely brought with him from England when he immigrated here in 1947, something from his own boyhood. It sat beside old volumes of the Boy’s Own … (more–>)

The Missing Lines

The National Museum of Iraq – known originally as the Baghdad Archaeological Museum – once housed some of the oldest works of literature in the world. Treasures from the origins of civilization, from the cities of Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria were on display*. In 2003, when the Americans invaded**, a battle was fought between US and Iraqi forces at the museum. The Iraqi troops fled, and looters came … (more–>)


In 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote one of the most profound poems in the English language: The Red Wheelbarrow. It reads like a Japanese Zen haiku: so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Wikipedia tells us that the poem’s title is not its original, but rather one applied by its readers. The poem was first published in anthology … (more–>)

Enter Christopher Marlowe – Again

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote an essay about the “controversy” over who actually wrote the works of Shakespeare. I wrote, then, Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn’t new: for the last three centuries it’s been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world’s greatest dramas and comedies. … (more–>)

The Consolation of Literature

For Boethius, it was the Consolation of Philosophy*. For me, it’s literature. Not to write about it so much as to read it. Consolation from the act of reading. And read about literature. Sometimes literature is made more meaningful, brought into sharper focus by analysis and deconstruction. I started reading Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made (John C Meagher, Continuum, New York, 2000) last night. … (more–>)

Another Zen tale

Carrying on in the tradition of my last post, here’s another of the stories from Paul Reps’ book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Before I repeat it, consider the story of Diogenes, the Greek philosopher and founder of the school of Cynics (cynos is Greek for dog, thus the “dog” philosophers). Diogenes once complained that, “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.” I … (more–>)

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