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Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets: Criticism on Principle

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Dr Johnson’s witty and penetrating critical biographies of the great and good

By 1779, Samuel Johnson had attained that title by which he would become familiarly known: ‘Dr Johnson’. He wasn’t ‘doctored’ when he completed his most defining work (‘defining’ in every sense), the Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755. But when he came to write his Lives of the Poets, just five years before his death, he had become the era’s most celebrated man of letters, with an annual pension from the state to honour his services to scholarship and literature, and a reputation – and, indeed, a celebrity status – that continues to dwarf that of all other eighteenth-century writers. Who can picture Henry Fielding, or envisage Samuel Richardson? But Johnson, with his one-line pronouncements on everything from London to literature, death to dictionaries, remains remarkably alive to us. Read the rest of this entry

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Five Fascinating Facts about William Gibson

Interesting William Gibson facts

1. William Gibson popularised the term ‘cyberspace’ in a short story of 1982. Defined as ‘the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs’, cyberspace first appeared in fiction in William Gibson’s 1982 story ‘Burning Chrome’ (no relation to Google Chrome, we’re told), a story about a couple of freelance hackers. (Before it was published, Gibson read this story out at a science fiction convention – to an audience of four people.) But contrary to a widely held belief, William Gibson did not actually coin the term: it had originated, surprisingly, back in the 1960s when two Danish artists styled themselves as Atelier Cyberspace, after ‘cybernetics’, a term invented by Norbert Wiener way back in 1948 in his book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. (‘Cybernetics’, by the way, comes from the Greek meaning ‘steersman’ or ‘pilot’.) Gibson, however, helped to bring the term ‘cyberspace’ to a much wider audience, especially after the success of his smash-hit cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, in that uncannily dystopian year, 1984. Read the rest of this entry

Five Fascinating Facts about Plutarch

Fun facts about a pioneering ancient writer

1. Plutarch effectively invented the genre of biography. Plutarch’s innovative approach to biography was to take two important figures – one from Greek civilisation and the other from the Roman empire – and compare and contrast their characters, fortunes, and outlooks. This is the basis for his most famous work, the Parallel Lives.

2. As well as being a serious biographer, though, he was also something of a gossip. Plutarch loves to home in on an individual story that sheds some light on his subject – an anecdote, a moral tale, a quirk or distinctive character trait. And this is why we at Interesting Literature admire Plutarch so much: he saw the importance of trivia, and the fact that it isn’t always as trivial as it might first appear. His Greek Lives and Roman Lives (of which there are two very good selections by Oxford World’s Classics) show the individual personalities of the great statesmen and cultural figures he discusses, their quirks and foibles, their eccentricities. Read the rest of this entry