Friday, October 07, 2011

The late great, Steve Jobs left many a thoughtful observation, but perhaps his most universal piece of invaluable advice to each of us is this:
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.
Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
-- Steve Jobs.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"KRUGER'S GOLD: A novel of the Anglo-Boer War"

'Pleased to anounce that the first of my books is now available via the Kindle platform.
It can be accessed here:
By publishing on the Kindle platform, it now enables readers to get a copy of KRUGER'S GOLD at a greatly reduced price, compared to that of the printed paper version.
Particularly welcome to would-be buyers who live in South Africa and Britain, where reader interest is likely highest. Previously, costs of snail-mail postage and monetary exchange rates drove up the cost of buying a copy of my book. Now via Kindle, it is available for one sixth the original price -- and delivered instantaneously online.
Already, the book has garnered another enthusiastic review:

Book Review  "Kruger's Gold: A novel of the Anglo-Boer War" by Sidney Allinson.

"Quite simply a wonderful book"

Reviewer: R. Cox, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Sidney Allinson's books are surprises. They can start off unassumingly and build up to rip snorting sagas of ceaseless adventure. In his finest work yet, Allinson doesn't even start off slowly. "Kruger's Gold" grips the reader at once and the pace never slows. As I read this action tale of the struggle a century ago between South Africa's Boers, and England and her "colonials," I was repeatedly struck with the idea this would be and should be a wonderful movie. Allinson's experience as a television producer may have given him that hot-shot cameraman's "eye" or it could simply be that any good yarn so stirringly told lends itself to theatre in the best sense.

On these pages, a segment of history that was soon obscured by two ensuing, bloodier world wars leaps to life. It is really the twilight of an era, with Europeans jostling for power and position and, in this case in particular, South African gold Allinson fills in the historical perspective while following a Canadian soldier and his colonial troops who, late in the war, have been assigned to find the legendary government cache of gold that departing Prime Minister Paul Kruger was said to have stashed before leaving in 1900 for virtual exile in Europe.

Allinson writes sympathetically of the brilliant Boer commandos fighting to retain their homeland and their way of life. His story is not overly revisionist: the Boers have seized this land from the native tribes, after all, and even the most principled among them want to keep the blacks and "coloureds" in their place, lest their vast numbers overwhelm the white settlers. Even through a more politically correct prism, we must admire the self reliance of these men whose surprise tactics and talented marksmanship enabled them to strike at the enemy, melt away into the bush, and return to attack another day. Many if not most of the men have lost wives and children to the war; yet, while they can be ruthless, they treat surrendered prisoners with a decency and respect that arouses a sense of nostalgia in the reader. Their English counterparts do as well with their own prisoners, for the most part.

The story of the concentration camps where stranded Boer families and prisoners were placed to wait out the war is not as happy a one Allinson paints a grim picture of these horrors where women and children and some men languished in filthy conditions with poor diets and disease and death dogging every step. A few selfless medical workers do their best, but there are no facilities and their supplies are woefully inadequate. The camps were not England's finest legacy to the history texts.

The romances in the book provide a lusty and pleasing counterpoint. Even the horses get to play a heart-warming role. And throughout the book, Allinson has peppered the story with fascinating historical minutiae, such as the Boer heroine not being allowed to play ragtime music, then the rage, because it was produced by black performers.

Read this book at  It is a treat.        — R. Cox.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Finally, I have joined the Kindle world -- and I must say after just a couple of days, I am greatly impressed by the product! Downloads using Kindle's Whispernet over WiFi are both fast and easy to use. I especially enjoy and recommend personalizing the font size and type for easier viewing (depending on your eyesight).
I strongly advise all authors to utilize the Kindle platform to publish an electronic version of your books. Whatever your field of interest, Kindle is sure to enorkmously increase sales and readership for you.
Considering the overall lower prices of books in the Kindle format, lots of great books are worth purchasing, but there is a vast number of both free or inexpensive books acvailable to download. See here for more info on free classics for example:
One other useful benefit is the custom e-mail feature. You'll get a personalized e-mail address which you can use to send PDFs, Word documents, and even JPEGs or GIFs direct to your Kindle.
I also signed up for free 14-day trials for a number of big newspapers, such as the New York Times or the National Post. Every morning when you turn on your Kindle's WiFi, Amazon's Whispernet will immediately update your Kindle with new newspaper subscriptions. It is so nice to have the world's newspapers at your fingertips every morning.
Finally, my first purchase and download was my own latest book "Kruger's Gold". I am enjoying it all over again in its Kindle format. See here for more info about it in its new -- and less expensive --electronic verson:

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Meaning Of Night
by Michael Cox, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, 2006,600 pages.

This is one of the best historical crime novels ever published in many a year. It uses a near-Dickensian style to present a remarkably well-plotted mystery tale of thwarted inheritance, obsessive love, and implacable revenge.
Focused mainly on a family feud between a poet-criminal and a book-loving murderer, The Meaning Of Night has a huge supporting cast of sundry beauties, double-crossers, stout friends, lawyers, thugs, and other colourful characters. All luridly set in London of the 1850s, complete with menacing fog-shrouded streets, dank slums, brothels, opium dens, posh clubs, a titled country estate, and sundry other accurate, contemporary details.
British author Michael Cox planned the saga fitfully for 30 years, and only settled down to write it while undergoing treatment for cancer that threatened to take his eyesight. Happily, his vision was saved, but Cox credits the side-effects of medication with providing such manic energy that he was able to dash off the, manuscript straight through within a few months.

The result is an enjoyably old-fashioned tale focussed on purloined documents. Add casual murders, laced with arcane literary allusions and historical footnotes. Its labyrinthine story is told in elegant Victorian language and time shifts. that demand readers to pay close attention. Small wonder The Meaning of Night brought Cox a million-dollar advance, and is now on sale in 24 countries world-wide. Simply a thumping good read.

-- Review by Sidney Allinson.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

by Nicholas Carr

The Atlantic, July/August 2008

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfort­able sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, re-rnapping the neural cir­cuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going - so far as 1 can tell - but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.

I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the nar­rative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentra­tion often starts to drift after two or three pages. .I get fidgety; lose the thread, begin looking for some­thing else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

 I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the internet. The web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and  I’ve got the tell-tale fact or pithy quote I was after.
Even when I’m not working, as likely as not to be foraging in the web’s Info-thickets, reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike foot­notes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.) For me, as for others, the internet is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Write your headlines to speak directly and only to your prospective buyers.

The purpose of a headline is to pick out people you want to interest. Whether they are bedwetters, home-owners, car buyers, or whatever. You care only for those people, so make your headline say so.
People refuse to be bored in print. In print, they can choose their own companions, their own subjects.
There may be products which interest them more than anything else in a magazine. But they will never know it unless the headline or the picture tells them.
The vast difference in headlines is shown by keyed returns and measurable sales responses. The identical ad run with various headlines differs tremendously in its returns. A carefully targetted change to a headline can multiply responses from five to ten times over.
Don’t think that those millions of readers will study your ads to find out if your product interests them. They will decide by a quick glance -- mainly by your headline or your pictures. Address your sales message directly, clearly, to the people you seek, and them only.

An advertisement with 100 words should make the reader think 5000 words – which is the most valuable secret of ad copy. It is not just what you say that counts; what’s more important is the chain of thought that your ad creates in the prospect’s mind.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Letter To The Editor, The Financial Post, May 4, 2011.

Some years ago, I discussed with a colleague the question of how many undergraduates belong and deserve to be in our classrooms. My colleague suggested that perhaps 25% of students are properly qualified and sufficiently motivated. I found my colleague's estimate overly optimistic, as I believed most university students possess no intellectual curiosity, but just feel entitled to higher education and do not know what else to do.
We decided to test at least one aspect of our contention: the lack of intellectual curiosity. It was decided I would announce in my second-year child psychology class that the next lecture would be mostly a debate and not cover anything that would be tested in any examination. Students were advised to come only if they were interested in a better understanding of some particular issues.
The class was attended by 18 out of 120 students (15%). According to most participants, and myself, it was one of the best classes of the year.
It is regrettable that no political party in the recent election took up the problem of our crowded universities, which cater to unqualified, unmotivated, semi-literate and parasitical students.
Characteristically, our universities "advertise" like soap sellers. The University of Western Ontario brags about the "Western experience" (number 4 on Playboy's party list!). Other universities lure students with pretentious and dishonest slogans claiming to offer "excellence" in education.
I see no solution other than to insist, at the very least, on admission exams.
            Heinz Klatt, professor emeritus of psychology, London, Ont.

Friday, April 29, 2011


For what it’s worth, my advice is to stop thinking in terms of “muse” and “zone”.
Writing is simply a craft, a job, very similar to brick-laying.
One word at a time gradually builds a book manuscript.
First, write a story outline.
Then set a quota of words you will write each day.
Start writing.
Never give up.
Never give up.
Never give up.
Never give up, ‘til your manuscript is completed.
Then revise/rewrite every page.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Writing thank-you notes always has rewards out of all proportion to the slight effort of putting pen to paper.
 As simple as it sounds, people seldom take the time to write a quick note thanking someone. To an empoyee for having succeeded at a difficult task. To a friend for being so supportive. Even to a total stranger for a small passing kindness.

A hand-written"well-done" note (on paper, not e-mail) accentuating the positive never fails to encourage an employee, or renew old friendships across the years.
The simple act of writing "thank you" can pay off enormously out of all proportion. Perhaps because such notes of appreciation are so rare. Try it this very moment, and see the amazing results for yourself.


Diane Balloun, a Dallas, TX, communications consultant, has made a study of the differences between men and women memo-writers. "Women tend to be more wordy in memos", she says. "They put in too much detail, too much explanation, taking them longer to get to the point."

Balloun believes that the same qualities that make women such excellent managers when dealing with people are their downfall when faced with a blank sheet of paper. She thinks that female willingness to explain an issue in detail, especially their desire to soften bad news or present alternatives, can hamper their style with a memo.
Ms. Balloun observes, "The rule in memo-writing is, whether it's good or bad news, just give the information straight. Clear, concise, and to the point. But women are uncomfortable with this approach. As well, women seem to want to make even short memos look like letters, resulting in word-flow longer than the ideal maximum single page." She adds, "Most men don't like writing letters, so they're happy with point-form and bullets in memos to get info across fast." Hers are thoughtful -- if perhaps contentious -­observations...

Thursday, April 21, 2011


One of the most crucial areas for clarity is when writing about health and medicine to the general public. A recent study of hospital patients found that 66 percent do not understand medical language. Such words as cardiac, respiratory, and malignant are incomprehensible to the average reader.
     A report by the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association concludes that 97 percent of the pamphlets and booklets written about drugs and health care require a Grade 11 or higher education to read. The average Canadian reader has a Grade 8 comprehension.

If you're writing medical brochures, strive for an informal, conversational style. No medical or technical terms without simple translation with familiar words. Use examples or human interest stories to illustrate facts. But make sure they can reflect daily life of readers. Best test: try explaining the key points to a 10-year-old child. If you can make the child understand, you are on track for communicating health care information to the "average" person.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Most of us historical novelists are uncomfortably aware of the general public’s widespread ignorance of history, and the inept way it is typically treated in most school curriculums. (Oddly, this is true in Canada, Britain. Australia, and the USA.)
Aside from the lamentable ignorance itself, the situation is certainly harmful to the market for historical novels. Here is further confirmation of the pathetic state of affairs:

Sunday, March 27, 2011

"Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents and everyone is writing a book."                       
                                                                   --- Cicero, 43 BC

Friday, March 25, 2011


True, I included sex scenes in three of my novels, but without the obvious bodily details. I like to think my readers have sufficient imagination to understand what is going on.
However, some new, younger, literary agents seem convinced that no manuscript is acceptable  unless it is slathered with numerous sex scenes described in excruciatingly gross detail.
Typically, such “agents” are gormless, gauche, and quite unsuited to their job.
I treasure the memory of one such poor soul (female), who suggested that I change a WWII manuscript of mine to include a scene in which the soldier hero copulated with a woman war-correspondent aboard a landing-barge speeding through shot and shell while approaching an enemy shore fortress.
Evidently, the agent lacked my experience that when you are under fire, sex tends to be rather the last thing on your mind.

-- Sidney Allinson.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“In the old days, writers' lives were more interesting
than their writing. Nowadays, neither the lives nor
the writing is interesting.”
                                                           William Faulkner
                                    As I Lay Dying.

Monday, March 21, 2011


Writers need to constantly alert to prevent against using tautologies in their work. That is needless repetition, the use of two words when one will do (e.g., "tiny little puppies".) Here are a few examples:

absolutely conclusive

agricultural crops

awkward dilemma

close proximity

complete monopoly

completely full

divisive quarrel

end result

entirely absent

exact counterpart

future plan

general public

grateful thanks

hired mercenary

irreducible minimum

lonely hermit

lifeless corpse

meaningless gibberish

mutual cooperation

new record

old adage

organic life

original founder

patently obvious

personal friend

personal opinion

pragmatic realist

present incumbent

sworn affidavit

true facts

ultimate outcome

violent explosion

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Writers of historical novels have a personal interest in encouraging public knowledge of history – and in rectifying the deplorably high level of historical ignorance. See here why the widespread extent of the problem is inexcusable, and some suggestions how history could be made more appealing. :

-- Sidney Allinson.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Jennifer Moses, Wall Street Journal.

What teenage girl doesn't want to be attractive, sought-after and popular? And what mom doesn't want to help that cause?

In the pale-turquoise ladies' room, they congregate in front of the mirror, re-applying mascara and lip gloss, brushing their hair, straightening panty hose and gossiping: This one is "skanky," that one is "really cute," and so forth. Dressed in minidresses, perilously high heels, and glittery, dangling earrings, their eyes heavily shadowed in black-pearl and jade, they look like a flock of tropical birds. A few minutes later, they return to the dance floor, where they shake everything they've got under the party lights.
But for the most part, there isn't all that much to shake. This particular group of party-goers consists of 12- and 13-year-old girls. Along with their male counterparts, they are celebrating the bat mitzvah of a classmate in a cushy East Coast suburb.
Today's teen and preteen girls are bombarded with images and products that tout the benefits of sexual attraction. But must we as parents, give in to their desire to "dress like everyone else?" asks author Jennifer Moses. She talks with WSJ's Kelsey Hubbard.
In a few years, their attention will turn to the annual ritual of shopping for a prom dress, and by then their fashion tastes will have advanced still more. Having done this now for two years with my own daughter, I continue to be amazed by the plunging necklines, built-in push-up bras, spangles, feathers, slits and peek-a-boos. And try finding a pair of sufficiently "prommish" shoes designed with less than a 2-inch heel.
All of which brings me to a question: Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this—like prostitutes, if we're being honest with ourselves—but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?
I posed this question to a friend whose teenage daughter goes to an all-girls private school in New York. "It isn't that different from when we were kids," she said. "The girls in the sexy clothes are the fast girls. They'll have Facebook pictures of themselves opening a bottle of Champagne, like Paris Hilton. And sometimes the moms and dads are out there contributing to it, shopping with them, throwing them parties at clubs. It's almost like they're saying, 'Look how hot my daughter is.'" But why? "I think it's a bonding thing," she said. "It starts with the mommy-daughter manicure and goes on from there."
I have a different theory. It has to do with how conflicted my own generation of women is about our own past, when many of us behaved in ways that we now regret. A woman I know, with two mature daughters, said, "If I could do it again, I wouldn't even have slept with my own husband before marriage. Sex is the most powerful thing there is, and our generation, what did we know?"
We are the first moms in history to have grown up with widely available birth control, the first who didn't have to worry about getting knocked up. We were also the first not only to be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputations but actually pressured by our peers and the wider culture to find our true womanhood in the bedroom. Not all of us are former good-time girls now drowning in regret — I know women of my generation who waited until marriage—but that's certainly the norm among my peers.
So here we are, the feminist and postfeminist and postpill generation. We somehow survived our own teen and college years (except for those who didn't), and now, with the exception of some Mormons, evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, scads of us don't know how to teach our own sons and daughters not to give away their bodies so readily. We're embarrassed, and we don't want to be, God forbid, hypocrites.
Still, in my own circle of girlfriends, the desire to push back is strong. I don't know one of them who doesn't have feelings of lingering discomfort regarding her own sexual past. And not one woman I've ever asked about the subject has said that she wishes she'd "experimented" more.
As for the girls themselves, if you ask them why they dress the way they do, they'll say (roughly) the same things I said to my mother: "What's the big deal?" "But it's the style." "Could you be any more out of it?" What teenage girl doesn't want to be attractive, sought-after and popular?
And what mom doesn't want to help that cause? In my own case, when I see my daughter in drop-dead gorgeous mode, I experience something akin to a thrill—especially since I myself am somewhat past the age to turn heads.
In recent years, of course, promiscuity has hit new heights (it always does!), with "sexting" among preteens, "hooking up" among teens and college students, and a constant stream of semi-pornography from just about every media outlet. Varied sexual experiences—the more the better—are the current social norm.
I wouldn't want us to return to the age of the corset or even of the double standard, because a double standard that lets the promiscuous male off the hook while condemning his female counterpart is both stupid and destructive. If you're the campus mattress, chances are that you need therapy more than you need condemnation.
But it's easy for parents to slip into denial. We wouldn't dream of dropping our daughters off at college and saying: "Study hard and floss every night, honey—and for heaven's sake, get laid!" But that's essentially what we're saying by allowing them to dress the way they do while they're still living under our own roofs.

How to Keep a Thriller Real

Interview with Frederick Forsythe

When Eric Ambler and Geoffrey Household were writing their thrillers 70 years ago, or John Buchan 30 years before that, they had a great advantage of which they were probably not even aware.
If they wished to describe a foreign location or a technical procedure of some complexity, and if they got it all or even peripherally wrong, the chances are their readers would not know. For the modern thriller writer, by contrast, accuracy is now obligatory.
As a Reuters-trained journalist, I always thought it was anyway. So I was surprised when, after the appearance of "The Day of the Jackal" in 1971, people started asking me, "Why do you describe things in such detail?"
As a novelist nowadays, you have to assume that everything you say will be, for some reader somewhere (and maybe for hundreds of them), something they know a lot about. And they do not forgive slovenly descriptions riddled with errors.
Frankly, it makes the task very hard work. You want to set a scene in Istanbul but cannot actually go there? Research it until a reader who lives there cannot find fault in your account.
There are now aids to research that Messrs. Ambler and Household never had, the biggest and most-used of them being the Internet. Some, I know, swear by it and spend days pouring over the little silver screen. If you are starting out and funds are tight, the Internet and the reference library may be all that your budget will permit. For all that, do not stint on getting the facts right.
Another resource is a book written by someone who knows a subject intimately. It may be a travelogue or a technical manual. There is no plagiarism if you simply lift the facts, because facts are facts and there is no copyright in them.
Hitler marched into Poland at 5 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, and that is a fact. It is easily found in, for example, William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." So there should be no problem in getting that nugget of history absolutely right.
If funds permit, I prefer to go to a place, if the scenes I want to describe are lengthy and rather detailed. When it comes to locations, there is no substitute for going there to see for yourself. You spot things that can be found in no memoir, no guidebook, no Google entry—small details that, collectively, create "the ring of truth" (an overused but still accurate phrase).
“Delve for amazing, new anecdotes. When asked where they're from, say: 'I have friends in low places.'”
The final weapon in the researcher's arsenal is the long conversation with someone, often retired, who spent his whole life in that profession, or that place, or handling that particular piece of machinery or technology.
If I want a scene on a Scottish trawler in the Denmark Strait, I'll find an old fishing skipper in the Scottish town of Peterhead and ask him to tell me what it was like. And here's the joy of it: Most veterans simply love to describe their area of expertise. The problem is usually synthesizing what you really need for your story from the hours of fond reminiscences of the old boy in the cardigan.
I have a reputation for writing fast—about 45 days per novel. But that is deceptive. Ten standard pages a day is not a back-breaker, just six hours tapping away. That will yield 450 pages, a completed thriller novel.
What does not emerge from that figure is the six preceding months of slow, painstaking research, resulting in several tables spread with personal notes, tear sheets from magazines, cut-out newspaper articles, maps, photos and reference books. And all those jotted interviews with the experts.
Frankly, the research is the interesting bit, not the tapping of keys. It is from the discreet conversations with veterans of a half-century of different professions, some mundane but some really secretive, that you get the amazing anecdotes that never saw the light of day—until you came along.
So when people ask: How on earth did you discover that? I just say: "Shhhhh. I have friends in low places."

Copyright, Wall Street Journal.


by Henry David Thoreau
ThoreauWith a little more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident. The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed. That time which we really improve, or which is improvable, is neither past, present, nor future.
My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; and though I was beyond the range of the ordinary circulating library, I had more than ever come within the influence of those books which circulate round the world, whose sentences were first written on bark, and are now merely copied from time to time on to linen paper. Says the poet Mr Udd, “Being seated, to run through the region of the spiritual world; I have had this advantage in books. To be intoxicated by a single glass of wine; I have experienced this pleasure when I have drunk the liquor of the esoteric doctrines.” I kept Homer’s Iliad on my table through the summer, though I looked at his page only now and then. Incessant labor with my hands, at first, for I had my house to finish and my beans to hoe at the same time, made more study impossible. Yet I sustained myself by the prospect of such reading in future. I read one or two shallow books of travel in the intervals of my work, till that employment made me ashamed of myself, and I asked where it was then that I lived.
The student may read Homer or Aeschylus in the Greek without danger of dissipation or luxuriousness, for it implies that he in some measure emulate their heroes, and consecrate morning hours to their pages. The heroic books, even if printed in the character of our mother tongue, will always be in a language dead to degenerate times; and we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have. The modern cheap and fertile press, with all its translations, has done little to bring us nearer to the heroic writers of antiquity. They seem as solitary, and the letter in which they are printed as rare and curious, as ever. It is worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours, if you learn only some words of an ancient language, which are raised out of the trivialness of the street, to be perpetual suggestions and provocations. It is not in vain that the farmer remembers and repeats the few Latin words which he has heard. Men sometimes speak as if the study of the classics would at length make way for more modern and practical studies; but the adventurous student will always study classics, in whatever language they may be written and however ancient they may be. For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave. We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old. To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. It is not enough even to be able to speak the language of that nation by which they are written, for there is a memorable interval between the spoken and the written language, the language heard and the language read. The one is commonly transitory, a sound, a tongue, a dialect merely, almost brutish, and we learn it unconsciously, like the brutes, of our mothers. The other is the maturity and experience of that; if that is our mother tongue, this is our father tongue, a reserved and select expression, too significant to be heard by the ear, which we must be born again in order to speak. The crowds of men who merely spoke the Greek and Latin tongues in the Middle Ages were not entitled by the accident of birth to read the works of genius written in those languages; for these were not written in that Greek or Latin which they knew, but in the select language of literature. They had not learned the nobler dialects of Greece and Rome, but the very materials on which they were written were waste paper to them, and they prized instead a cheap contemporary literature. But when the several nations of Europe had acquired distinct though rude written languages of their own, sufficient for the purposes of their rising literatures, then first learning revived, and scholars were enabled to discern from that remoteness the treasures of antiquity. What the Roman and Grecian multitude could not hear, after the lapse of ages a few scholars read, and a few scholars only are still reading it.
However much we may admire the orator’s occasional bursts of eloquence, the noblest written words are commonly as far behind or above the fleeting spoken language as the firmament with its stars is behind the clouds. There are the stars, and they who can may read them. The astronomers forever comment on and observe them. They are not exhalations like our daily colloquies and vaporous breath. What is called eloquence in the forum is commonly found to be rhetoric in the study. The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.
No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from all human lips;—not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself. The symbol of an ancient man’s thought becomes a modern man’s speech. Two thousand summers have imparted to the monuments of Grecian literature, as to her marbles, only a maturer golden and autumnal tint, for they have carried their own serene and celestial atmosphere into all lands to protect them against the corrosion of time. Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. When the illiterate and perhaps scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by the pains which he takes to secure for his children that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels; and thus it is that he becomes the founder of a family.
Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race; for it is remarkable that no transcript of them has ever been made into any modern tongue, unless our civilization itself may be regarded as such a transcript. Homer has never yet been printed in English, nor AEschylus, nor Virgil even—works as refined, as solidly done, and as beautiful almost as the morning itself; for later writers, say what we will of their genius, have rarely, if ever, equalled the elaborate beauty and finish and the lifelong and heroic literary labors of the ancients. They only talk of forgetting them who never knew them. It will be soon enough to forget them when we have the learning and the genius which will enable us to attend to and appreciate them. That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics, and the still older and more than classic but even less known Scriptures of the nations, shall have still further accumulated, when the Vaticans shall be filled with Vedas and Zendavestas and Bibles, with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively deposited their trophies in the forum of the world. By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.
The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled “Little Reading,” which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of this, even after the fullest dinner of meats and vegetables, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide this provender, they are the machines to read it. They read the nine thousandth tale about Zebulon and Sophronia, and how they loved as none had ever loved before, and neither did the course of their true love run smooth—at any rate, how it did run and stumble, and get up again and go on! how some poor unfortunate got up on to a steeple, who had better never have gone up as far as the belfry; and then, having needlessly got him up there, the happy novelist rings the bell for all the world to come together and hear, O dear! how he did get down again! For my part, I think that they had better metamorphose all such aspiring heroes of universal noveldom into man weather-cocks, as they used to put heroes among the constellations, and let them swing round there till they are rusty, and not come down at all to bother honest men with their pranks. The next time the novelist rings the bell I will not stir though the meeting-house burn down. “The Skip of the Tip-Toe-Hop, a Romance of the Middle Ages, by the celebrated author of `Tittle-Tol-Tan,’ to appear in monthly parts; a great rush; don’t all come together.” All this they read with saucer eyes, and erect and primitive curiosity, and with unwearied gizzard, whose corrugations even yet need no sharpening, just as some little four-year-old bencher his two-cent gilt-covered edition of Cinderella—without any improvement, that I can see, in the pronunciation, or accent, or emphasis, or any more skill in extracting or inserting the moral. The result is dulness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties. This sort of gingerbread is baked daily and more sedulously than pure wheat or rye-and-Indian in almost every oven, and finds a surer market.
The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with a very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell. Even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated men here and elsewhere have really little or no acquaintance with the English classics; and as for the recorded wisdom of mankind, the ancient classics and Bibles, which are accessible to all who will know of them, there are the feeblest efforts anywhere made to become acquainted with them. I know a woodchopper, of middle age, who takes a French paper, not for news as he says, for he is above that, but to “keep himself in practice,” he being a Canadian by birth; and when I ask him what he considers the best thing he can do in this world, he says, beside this, to keep up and add to his English. This is about as much as the college-bred generally do or aspire to do, and they take an English paper for the purpose. One who has just come from reading perhaps one of the best English books will find how many with whom he can converse about it? Or suppose he comes from reading a Greek or Latin classic in the original, whose praises are familiar even to the so-called illiterate; he will find nobody at all to speak to, but must keep silence about it. Indeed, there is hardly the professor in our colleges, who, if he has mastered the difficulties of the language, has proportionally mastered the difficulties of the wit and poetry of a Greek poet, and has any sympathy to impart to the alert and heroic reader; and as for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles? Most men do not know that any nation but the Hebrews have had a scripture. A man, any man, will go considerably out of his way to pick up a silver dollar; but here are golden words, which the wisest men of antiquity have uttered, and whose worth the wise of every succeeding age have assured us of;—and yet we learn to read only as far as Easy Reading, the primers and class-books, and when we leave school, the “Little Reading,” and story-books, which are for boys and beginners; and our reading, our conversation and thinking, are all on a very low level, worthy only of pygmies and manikins.
I aspire to be acquainted with wiser men than this our Concord soil has produced, whose names are hardly known here. Or shall I hear the name of Plato and never read his book? As if Plato were my townsman and I never saw him—my next neighbor and I never heard him speak or attended to the wisdom of his words. But how actually is it? His Dialogues, which contain what was immortal in him, lie on the next shelf, and yet I never read them. We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate; and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsman who cannot read at all and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects. We should be as good as the worthies of antiquity, but partly by first knowing how good they were. We are a race of tit-men, and soar but little higher in our intellectual flights than the columns of the daily paper.
It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! The book exists for us, perchance, which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones. The at present unutterable things we may find somewhere uttered. These same questions that disturb and puzzle and confound us have in their turn occurred to all the wise men; not one has been omitted; and each has answered them, according to his ability, by his words and his life. Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality. The solitary hired man on a farm in the outskirts of Concord, who has had his second birth and peculiar religious experience, and is driven as he believes into the silent gravity and exclusiveness by his faith, may think it is not true; but Zoroaster, thousands of years ago, travelled the same road and had the same experience; but he, being wise, knew it to be universal, and treated his neighbors accordingly, and is even said to have invented and established worship among men. Let him humbly commune with Zoroaster then, and through the liberalizing influence of all the worthies, with Jesus Christ himself, and let “our church” go by the board.
We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked—goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the State, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment. It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure—if they are, indeed, so well off—to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever? Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under the skies of Concord? Can we not hire some Abelard to lecture to us? Alas! what with foddering the cattle and tending the store, we are kept from school too long, and our education is sadly neglected. In this country, the village should in some respects take the place of the nobleman of Europe. It should be the patron of the fine arts. It is rich enough. It wants only the magnanimity and refinement. It can spend money enough on such things as farmers and traders value, but it is thought Utopian to propose spending money for things which more intelligent men know to be of far more worth. This town has spent seventeen thousand dollars on a town-house, thank fortune or politics, but probably it will not spend so much on living wit, the true meat to put into that shell, in a hundred years. The one hundred and twenty-five dollars annually subscribed for a Lyceum in the winter is better spent than any other equal sum raised in the town. If we live in the Nineteenth Century, why should we not enjoy the advantages which the Nineteenth Century offers? Why should our life be in any respect provincial? If we will read newspapers, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best newspaper in the world at once?—not be sucking the pap of “neutral family” papers, or browsing “Olive Branches” here in New England. Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us, and we will see if they know anything. Why should we leave it to Harper & Brothers and Redding & Co. to select our reading? As the nobleman of cultivated taste surrounds himself with whatever conduces to his culture—genius—learning—wit—books— paintings—statuary—music—philosophical instruments, and the like; so let the village do—not stop short at a pedagogue, a parson, a sexton, a parish library, and three selectmen, because our Pilgrim forefathers got through a cold winter once on a bleak rock with these. To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions; and I am confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater than the nobleman’s. New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is the uncommon school we want. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Writing projects often require knowing how many words will be required for the finished project. To estimate wordage, count the exact number of words on the first three pages of your manuscript (in manuscripts up to 25 pages), divide total by three and multiply the result by the number of pages. Carry the total to the nearest 100 words. (Note: every word counts. The word "a" counts as a word. Abbreviated words count as one word.) For example, say you have a 12-page manuscript with totals of 182, 316 and 289 words on the first three pages. Divide your total of 787 by 3 to get 262. Now multiply 262 x 12 pages and you get 3,144. You approximate wordage, therefore, will be 3,100 words. On manuscripts over 25 pages, count five pages instead of three, then follow the same process, dividing by 5 instead of 3.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Tis said that on March 17, every lad and lass wishes he/she were Irish. But what about the rest of the year? Actually, the Irish are with us every day, whether we realize it or not - immortalized in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Over the centuries, many Irish surnames have evolved into common English expressions and figures of speech. For "Murphy" alone, the OED lists five meanings. It can signify
(a) asleep, as "in the arms of Murphy"
(b) a potato
(c) a foldaway bed
(d) a device used to perform surgery on the intestine
(e) a con game.
And of course, we also have Murphy's Law, named after American engineer Edward A. Murphy, which postulates that if anything can go wrong, it invariably will.
Murphy keeps good, if less prolific, company in the OED. According to a 1934 citation, "kelly," is "a variety of 15ball pool." "Kennedy" is listed as obsolete slang for a poker. "Mulligan" refers to a potpourri stew or an illegal shot in golf. "Collins" can be an iced drink composed of whisky and gin, or a letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest. The term derives from the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Then there are the Boycotts. Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was the land agent for the estates of the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. When Boycott raised the rents in 1880, the tenants raised the roof. Local stores refused to sell to him and militant protestors destroyed his property and cut off his food supply. Eventually, Boycott was forced to flee to England, but as a small consolation his name was immortalized as "the refusal to deal with a person or business," not only in English but also in Dutch, French, German, Russian, and Indonesian.
But perhaps the most infamous Irish surname enshrined in our language is Lynch. Most etymologists credit a Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) who served with the Virginia militia as the source of the term. Lynch presided over a tribunal established to rid his county of "undesirables" who had eluded the authorities. Lynch and his vigilantes became known as lynch-men and their methods were dubbed lynch's law. By 1836, the verb "lynch" had acquired its current meaning of hanging by mob action without legal sanction.
So whether you're a Murphy, a Kennedy or just an Irish wannabe, enjoy St. Patrick's Day -and raise a pint to Ireland's linguistic legacy.
- Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


As I have said often before, non-fic­tion "self-help" and informational books are the most likely types to be successfully self-published. Useful prac­tical knowledge is always in demand and so the genre is easier to sell. But this should by no means discourage fiction authors from bringing out their own novels and gaining respectable sales-figures.

After all, a myriad of literary classics were originally self-published; such as Lady Chatterley's Lover, Ulysses, Huck­leberry Finn, War And Peace, Spartacus, The Wizard Of Oz, and Remembrance Of Things Past.

Famous authors who first went the self-published route include Rudyard Kipling Mark Twain, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Walt Whitman, Anais Nin, Upton Sinclair, Zane Gray, George Bernard Shaw T.S. Eliot, and Margaret Attwood.

Beatrix Potter first wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit to entertain an ailing child, then submitted her illustrated story to sev­eral publishing houses. All refused to go along with her idea of a small format to fit little children's hands, so she self-pub­lished it, and her stories went on to become perennial favourites to this day.

Contemporary poet Rod McKuen published his own Listen To The Warm, and personally sold 40,000 copies before his talent was recognized by Random House, which has since sold over a million copies.
University instructor Robert James Waller wrote a book from his heart, The Bridges of Madison County. No publisher was interested, so Waller published it him­self, selling copies to stores on consign­ment with a money-back guarantee. Response was so positive, nobody wanted a refund. After the book rose up the best­seller lists, movie rights were acquired to star Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.

You probably know that James Red­field's The Celestine Prophecy became one of the best-selling books in recent history -- despite the fact it is among the worst-written books ever. Yet, it began as a modest self-­printed item that Redfield and his wife gave away as free samples to hundreds of New Age-type stores. After a book salesman brought it to the attention of publishing giant Warners, the firm purchased world rights for $800,000, and it stayed on Publishers Weekly's top-fiction list for 64 weeks. (Go figure!)

Richard Paul Evans' 87-page parable about parental love, The Christmas Box, was self-published just as a gift for his family. He printed only 20 copies, but word-of-mouth soon caused people to ask local bookstores for it. Realizing he was on to something, Evans tried to find a publisher. But after repeated rejections, he self-published, starting with 3,000 copies. After he'd sold 700,000 copies personally, Evans' book eventually wound up in a bidding war won by Simon & Schuster, and it is now a multi-million copy perennial seller.

Wildly successful courtroom novelist John Grisham used to peddle copies of his first effort, A Tine To Kill, out of the back of his car before catching the eye of New York publishing giant Doubleday. But even established authors are some­times still forced to go it alone. Though Jill Paton Walsh was already a recipient of several prestigious literary prizes, no publisher in Britain would accept her reli­gious allegory, A Knowledge Of Angels, so she published it herself and it was promptly short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1994.

The award-winning dramatist Snoo Wilson had three previous novels pub­lished by big imprints, but could find no takers for his The Works of Melinont, a fictionalized version of the life, of Robert Maxwell. So Wilson decided to publish, it himself. He said, "There is a part of me that sees self-publishing as an admission of failure, but then Harry Potter got turned down by lots of publishers before its huge success by taking a chance on J.K. Rowling. And we all can give it a try, as advances in technology today have made it so easy to organize producing a book."

Australian best-selling thriller writer Matthew Reilly started out as a self-publisher at the tender age of 19, because his first novel, Contest, was turned down by every publishing house he approached He personally placed copies of his boot in every store he could until finally gaining the attention of a major firm and hi. novel has sold two million copies. Reilly said something particularly astute about one detail all self-publishers should remember. "I've noticed that self published books don't have publishing house imprint logos.” He held up a copy of his latest success, Scarecrow, and put his finger over the publisher's logo on the spine to demonstrate. "See, it looks weird. Peo­ple use visual clues to detect what is a real book and what is not." Self-publishers should keep that gem in mind when getting their book-cover designed.

The growing acceptance of many such books has launched the modern publisher revolution, so-called "crossover titles," where previously self-subsidized books are being bought by big-name publishing houses. Self-pub­lished new authors could take heart from this new phenomenon, as your own book could well become the next block­buster bestseller.