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Karel Capek’s Apocryphal Stories

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek

The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.

Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.

Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). Read the rest of this entry

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Lois Austen-Leigh’s Incredible Crime

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle returns to the Golden Age of detective fiction with this crime classic

Before Colin Dexter breathed new life into the genre with his Inspector Morse novels published from 1975 onwards, the Oxbridge crime novel was already a sizeable subgenre within detective fiction: there was the Queen of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, whose Gaudy Night (1935) had helped to blaze a trail for the Oxford crime novel, and in her wake, Bruce Montgomery, under the pen name Edmund Crispin, wrote mystery novels set in Oxford, where he was studying for a degree when he wrote his first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, in 1943. Crispin’s creation, the amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, is also an Oxford don and English Literature professor at the university.

But before these, there was Lois Austen-Leigh’s quartet of Cambridge crime novels, of which the 1931 novel The Incredible Crime (British Library Crime Classics) was the first. Now, the British Library have brought the novel back into print as part of their Crime Classics series. Lois Austen-Leigh (1883-1968), who was the great-great-niece of Jane Austen, has languished forgotten in old libraries and second-hand bookshops for over half a century, her novels known only to aficionados of the Golden Age of British crime fiction, lasting around two decades between the two world wars. Even then, as Robert Davies has noted, even experts in the field often haven’t heard of Austen-Leigh. Read the rest of this entry

J. C. McKeown’s Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle opens a delightful cabinet of surprising facts from the healing arts of Greece and Rome

‘A doctor should not quote poetry in support of his opinions, for such earnest zeal suggests incompetence.’ This quotation from Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is one of the epigraphs to J. C. McKeown’s eye-opening (and occasionally eye-watering) A Cabinet of Ancient Medical Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Healing Arts of Greece and Rome. Yet ‘incompetence’ is clearly the name of the game when it comes to the ancients’ attitudes to healing and curing people. The man who gave his name to the famous oath may have spurned poetry as a means of supporting medical advice, but reading McKeown’s meticulously compiled selection of surprising cures and baffling remedies makes one wonder whether, if you got sick in classical times, having a few hexameters of Homer recited at you might not have been slightly more effective than whatever potion or dressing was proposed by the local quack. Medicine – as in effective, evidence-based medicine – really is a very modern thing. For much of recorded time, our ancestors fumbled about in the dark, relying on superstition or odd logic to come up with possible correctives.

McKeown’s book is divided into fourteen chapters on a variety of themes, including ‘the doctor in society’, ‘attitudes to doctors’, ‘sex matters’, ‘women and children’, ‘preventive medicine’, and, of course, ‘treatment and cures’ (which gets two chapters). Within each chapter, McKeown has assembled an impressive range of sources from the classical world, such as Galen and Aristotle, but also less familiar figures including Apollodorus, Soranus, and the wonderfully named Cassius Iatrosophista, a Greek medical writer from nearly 2,000 years ago who is known as the author of Quaestiones Medicae et Problemata Naturalia. Read the rest of this entry