The Descendants of Conan: John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads about one of Conan the Barbarian’s literary offspring

When I was a teenager devouring every fantasy book I could find, one of my favourite writers was Robert E. Howard. His Conan Chronicles – reprinted by Gollancz in a glorious two-volume edition as part of their Fantasy Masterworks series – sound rather crude and even unpromising when you try to explain to people what happens in a Conan story. Essentially, a barbarian with huge muscles goes about the world in search of treasure, finding abandoned cities and rescuing damsels and battling evil sorcerers and sorceresses, as well as encountering weird creatures including large spiders and giant snakes (Howard’s own bete noire). The stories sound like adolescent male wish-fulfilment – ‘fantasy’ in more ways than one – and on one level they are. But this is not all they are. And reading these fast-paced tales of ‘sword and sorcery’, as the genre became known, was an experience that always transcended whatever a summary of their plot might otherwise imply.

This was because of the electrifying energy of Howard’s writing.

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A Highly Readable History of What It Means to Read

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new short history of literacy and reading by Belinda Jack

For Rene Descartes, ‘Reading all the great books is like a conversation with the most honourable people of earlier centuries who were their authors’, while for John Ruskin, ‘Reading is precisely a conversation with men who are both wiser and more interesting than those we might have occasion to meet ourselves.’ These two opinions are quoted in Belinda Jack’s Reading: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions), one of the latest titles in the Very Short Introductions series produced by Oxford University Press. And Jack does a superb job of summarising the history of reading in this slim volume.

Jack organises her exploration of the history and main aspects of reading and literacy into seven short, readable chapters: ‘What is reading?’, ‘Ancient worlds’, ‘Reading manuscripts, reading print’, ‘Modern reading’, ‘Forbidden reading’, ‘Making sense of reading’, and ‘Pluralities’. Each chapter offers some wonderful insights into the way reading has altered and developed over the centuries and millennia. Among the gems I especially relished was Jack’s short history of the invention of the printing press: contrary to

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A Forgotten Classic: William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer

In this excerpt from his fascinating The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler discusses the neglected William Melvin Kelley, author of the remarkable forgotten classic, A Different Drummer

‘If you’re woke, you dig it.’ Well, that answers the question; the word ‘woke’ first appeared in 1962, after William Melvin Kelley said it in a New York Times article that suggested beatniks had appropriated slang from African-Americans. Kelley was 24 at the time and lived ‘uptown, way uptown.’

He was interested in idiomatic language, and said his grandmother had told him that ‘ofay’, meaning a white man, was pig Latin for ‘foe’, so black idiomatic language was primarily used for secrecy, exclusion and protection. Black slang, awkwardly placed in white mouths, sounds, he said, like white audiences clapping on the wrong jazz beat, first and third instead of two and four. Jazz was analogous to black writing, played first in all-black dancehalls and moving out to the white mainstream, finally reaching a point where La La Land could let Ryan Gosling explain a black artform to us.

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Literary Film Review: The Running Man

Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University) analyses The Running Man, the 1980s dystopian action movie based, and yet also not based, on a Stephen King novel

In J. W. Eagan’s sage words, ‘Never judge a book by its movie.’ The following is part of this new monthly ‘literary film review’ segment on this blog, and as such it’s a review of the film of The Running Man (dir. Paul Michael Glaser – yes, Starsky from Starsky and Hutch – 1987), but it’s important to go back to the – very different – source material for The Running Man: that is, the novel called The Running Man, by Richard Bachman, aka Stephen King.

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Review: Alex Johnson, A Book of Book Lists

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle delves into a range of fascinating literary lists courtesy of Alex Johnson’s new book

There is something comforting in a list. The human mind craves order amidst chaos: the inventor of the modern thesaurus (and the one who first gave a book of synonyms that name), Peter Mark Roget, began to compile the book that is now synonymous with his name as a way of coping with depression and personal tragedy. Lists can also offer guidance, of course. It was John Aikin who said, ‘To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list.’ And book lists can be of great service to the bibliophile.

I’m not talking so much about chart lists such as the New York Times Bestseller List or the Amazon charts, but something more timeless and enduring. Which is why Alex Johnson’s A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile’s Compendium (British Library) makes for such informative and enjoyable reading. As he announces in his brief introduction, A Book of Book Lists is not a ‘1,001 Books You MUST Read Before You’re 40’ kind of book. Instead,

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