His fantastic mutton chops alone should give Heinrich Barth some immortal fame. But that's not all that sets him apart. The 19th-century German explorer led an extraordinary five-year expedition into Islamic Africa, a journey that taught the West about the amazing cultures and creatures of a mystery continent.
But Barth and his adventure are barely remembered today. Perhaps it's because of his nationality, his prickly personality, or his inability to express his thoughts in anything less than thousands of pages.
Whatever the case, one of the world's great explorers is now the subject of his first biography in English. It's titled "A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa" and written by Connecticut-based freelance journalist Steve Kemper.
Q: Why haven't we heard of this guy?
A: There are a lot of reasons, and they all add up to a perfect storm.
He was German and working for the British, who like their heroes home-grown and have a long history of suspicion of the Germans. He managed to accomplish one of their greatest expeditions ever, and he was German. Some people didn't get over that.
There was also was the length and density of Barth’s work -- 3,500 pages of closely observed nature, culture, ethnography. The book didn't create the stir that Livingstone and Stanley did.
Then there's the stuff he came back with: Islam is a great religion, and Africa has a history of culture and literature, complex societies and systems of government. This was going against what people wanted to believe about the continent they wanted to pillage and take over.
And there was also his personality.
Q: To borrow an old word, he seems like a bit of a prig. Was he?
A: Not more priggish than other Victorians were, but he was highly susceptible to slights against his honor. Whenever he felt he was slighted, he responded with too much pique.
Q: What did he discover during his travels in north-central Africa?
Q: As you write, he spent time in Timbuktu, which still has a reputation as being a place out in the boonies. What's the story behind Timbuktu?
A: It's had a reputation for centuries.
There was an man named Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali, a gigantic kingdom in Africa in the 14th century. He decided to make a voyage to Mecca, and took camels laden with gold. When he got to Cairo, he spent like a crazy man and his hajj became legendary. That’s when people first heard of Timbuktu, thinking there must be a golden city there.
It was a mythic place in most people's minds. But Barth was a scientist, so he wasn't interested in the myth. He was interested in the data. He brought out so much information about what was in the market, how much things cost, what the system of government was like, who was in power.
He spent his seven months there essentially under house arrest. But he did make a number of outings under threat of death and brought back a picture of the educated people and uneducated people, and the fundamentalists and the scholars, which sounds so familiar today.
Barth said Timbuktu was a very literary place, filled with manuscripts. That was a pretty shocking idea in Europe.
Q: What did he learn about Islam?
A: Almost anything he understood was not understood in the West because we're so ignorant of Islam.
He brought back information that you could find scholars in Africa -- Islamic scholars who could you talk to you about astronomy, Aristotle, Ptolemy, music, law, theology.
He brought information about all the factions of Islam and the fanatical sects. He said it is a great religion that is controlled in some areas by fanatics and ignorant people, and it has never lived up to his potential. And by the way, neither has Christianity.
Q: Did he make a big point of that observation?
A: He made a couple quips about that, reminded people that Christianity had done some of the same things that the West had accused Islam of doing. What he said was that Islam is like any other religion: It includes great people, it includes criminals and thugs and ignorant people, and both shysters and magnificence. It's a great religion, it deserves respect.
He could quote the Koran, especially the opening prayer, which saved his life several times.
Q: Do you feel like you're restoring his reputation?
A: I really hope that this brings him to people's attention. Boy, he deserves it. He's one of the greatest explorers who ever lived. Why he's not known is a mystery and a shame, and I hope my book does a little bit to nudge him back toward the spotlight.
Q: Why is his story important today?
A: You can't help but read his story and this book without noticing how ignorant Europe was about Africa – and how ignorant we still are.
Barth had a totally idealistic view about the ability of science to dispel ignorance. I hope my book adds one little match to that flame.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
Now here’s a government initiative we can get behind: the National Endowment of the Arts announced Tuesday its seventh annual nationwide read-a-thon program, The Big Read.
The Endowment is providing $1 million in grants to 78 communities across the country to host Big Read programs to encourage folks to read, share, and discuss literature. It’s a kind of nationwide summer book club for communities across America.
“At the NEA we know that the arts can help to create strong, vibrant communities by bringing people together,” NEA chairman Rocco Landesman said in a statement. “Through The Big Read, these 78 organizations are giving their communities the opportunity to share both great works of literature and memorable experiences.”
Here’s how it works. The NEA is providing 78 nonprofit institutions across the country, including arts councils, boys and girls clubs, libraries, public broadcasting stations, and universities, grants ranging from $2,500 to $20,000 to promote and host Big Read programs. Communities select one book from a group of 31 works of literature chosen by the NEA, including Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” Ernest J. Gaines' “A Lesson Before Dying,” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Educational materials like author biographies, discussion questions, and CDs supplement each title.
Once books and materials are selected and a kick-off event is held to launch the program, communities spend one month between September 2012 and June 2013 immersed in the selected book. Activities, events, and discussions like panel discussions, lectures, public readings, and exhibits will help further promote and explore each work of literature, reports the Los Angeles Times’s Jacket Copy blog.
“Whether you're reading a used paperback or a downloaded novel on an e-reader, nothing can beat the experience of getting lost in a good book,” NEA’s director of literature Ira Silverburg said in a statement. “I look forward to seeing the creative ways these 78 organizations will use The Big Read to promote reading within their communities.”
We’re excited about this program and eager to see it spread to more communities next year. Click here to find out if your community was selected for a Big Read grant.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
He’s still with us, but we’re going to miss the brilliant workings of Gabriel García Márquez’s mind. The Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate has dementia, Márquez's brother announced last weekend, and is not writing.
“He is doing well physically, but he has been suffering from dementia for a long time,” brother Jaime García Márquez said in a lecture in Cartagena, Colombia, over the weekend.
Best known for epic works of fiction illustrating “magical realism,” including “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. In 1999, he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer and treated with chemotherapy, which accelerated the onset of dementia, Jaime García Márquez said.
“Dementia runs in our family and he’s now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death,” he said. “Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defenses and cells, and accelerated the process.
“…Sometimes I cry because I feel like I’m losing him…but he still has the humor, joy and enthusiasm that he has always had,” Jaime García Márquez said.
Gabriel García Márquez had been working on the second part of his autobiography, “Vivir Para Contarla” (“Living to Tell the Tale”), which brother Jaime said is unlikely to be completed because of the author’s condition. “Unfortunately, I don’t think that’ll be possible, but I hope I’m wrong.”
Gabriel García Márquez was a pioneer of the literary school known as magical realism, an aesthetic genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. He now lives in Mexico and has not written anything since the publication five years ago of “Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
It’s a debate we expect to hear a lot more of in coming years: is developing a ratings system for increasingly dark young adult literature a move toward responsibility and oversight – or a slide into censorship?
In its latest iteration, the debate is being played out across the pond in the UK, where bestselling children’s authors G.P. Taylor and Patrick Ness sparred on BBC Breakfast over Taylor’s proposal to establish an age-ranging system for children’s lit.
After diving into the vast pool of vampire-themed literature with his Vampyre Labyrinth Series, about vampires living in Yorkshire, England during the Second World War, Taylor, better known for classic children’s novels like "Shadowmancer" and "Wormwood," said he decided to withdraw from the dark direction young adult lit has recently followed.
“I wrote the Vampyre Labyrinth, it came out, I hadn't really read it when I wrote the book, and people who were reading it and reviewing it were saying, 'This is the most frightening thing that has ever been written for kids,'” Taylor told BBC Breakfast, as reported by the Guardian. “I have changed my mind: I think children's literature has gone too far.”
After telling BBC Breakfast he got “dragged” into the vampire craze, Taylor hit upon the hot-button topic du jour: advocating the establishment of an age-ratings system for young adult literature, similar to ratings systems for movies and video games.
“I think the way forward is a certification system for books, the same way we have in films,” he said. “For children, we’ve got to be really careful. We’ve got to have a guide for parents.”
His comments come on the heels of a recent study by Brigham Young University that found young adult bestsellers have twice the rate of cursing of video games and characters who swear are typically portrayed as wealthier, more attractive, and more popular than their clean-mouthed counterparts.
And it’s not the first time age ratings have been proposed for children’s books. Publisher Scholastic proposed just such a measure back in 2008, which was met with swift condemnation, rebellion, even a petition against the measure signed by some 800 authors, including J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Terry Pratchett.
Given the less-than-warm response to Scholastic’s proposal, we’re not surprised Taylor’s proposal was similarly rejected. Patrick Ness, whose Carnegie Medal-winning novel “A Monster Calls,” about a boy whose mother has cancer and is visited by a monster, not only rejected Taylor’s proposal but said he embraced darkness in young adult literature.
“All you have to really do is read what teenagers write themselves, and I've judged competitions for teenagers writing, and it's darkness beyond anything I would come up with,” Ness told BBC Breakfast. “Teenagers look at this darkness all the time, and I always think if you're not addressing it in your fiction, then you're abandoning them to face it themselves.
“It's not as if books exist in a vacuum and that's all the input teenagers are getting,” he continued. “Teenagers look at the Internet, they look at the news, they look at pornography on the internet, they look at violent movies on the Internet. So if children's literature is not addressing that, if it's addressing the world as it should be rather than as it is, then why would a teenager read you?”
What’s more, Ness argued, ratings systems for young adult literature simply don’t work. “If it's got an 18 certificate for adults, then younger children will look it out when their parents are not around … Children are great self-censors. They know what they can read and they know what they want to read, and if you don't give it to them, they'll find it somehow.”
The topic has stirred even more debate in the blogosphere and Twitterverse, where bestselling author Charlie Higson tweeted, “Why was GP Taylor on BBC news suggesting govt introduce measures to keep books out of the hands of kids who want to read them?”
What do you think – is it time young adult lit comes with an age rating?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
This year marks the bicentenary of the man who gave us the delightful image of the owl and the pussycat who sailed away together, married in the land of the bong tree, and ate quince with runcible spoons. Edward Lear (1812-1888), the acknowledged master of the limerick, described his own work as “nonsense, pure and absolute.” His limericks were sometimes rude and occasionally gruesome but always funny.
Limericks of some shape and form were known to exist centuries before Lear made them popular; from the classical Greek poetry to Shakespeare and later day Irish verse, the AABBA meter has found a place. The name itself is believed to have originated from the Irish town of Limerick where a game around such extempore verse was played regularly in pubs.
In the 20th century, poet Ogden Nash celebrated the limerick with his witty and often risqué rhymes in the tradition of the best of them.
There was a young belle of old Natchez
Whose garments were always in patchez.
When comments arose
On the state of her clothes,
She replied, "When Ah itchez, Ah scratchez."
Cut to the present. Limerick stories are no longer limited to men with long beards or women with sharp noses from faraway places. The form has now lent itself to contemporary themes ranging from Google to the London Underground. There are tongue twister limericks and twitmericks – limericks in the twitter format (or is it the other way around?).
There are also famous poems rewritten in the limerick form. Take this version of Wordsworth's ever-popular "Daffodils" by an anonymous genius:
There once was a poet named Will
Who tramped his way over a hill
And was speechless for hours
Over some stupid flowers
This was years before TV, but still.
Aparna Ray from Kolkata, India, has used the limerick form to comment on news and current affairs on her blog Newsmericks since June 2005. And finally, there is the excellent Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form project, which aims to have every English word defined through an entertaining or informative limerick by 2039. Go there to contribute or just browse around for new takes on familiar words.
Charukesi Ramadurai is a Monitor contributor.
Little, Brown revealed the cover for J.K. Rowling’s new book “The Casual Vacancy” Tuesday morning, whetting appetites further for Rowling’s non-Potter venture that will be released in September.
The cover has a simple design, with a red and yellow motif and a central image of a box with a black check mark inside.
The book, titled “The Casual Vacancy,” will be about the struggle to fill a vacancy on a parish council in an English town and will be for adults. Little, Brown has stated the book will be 512 pages, calling it "a big book about a small town."
The Little, Brown website goes on to describe Pagford, the book's setting, as "seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey." However, readers are told, "Pagford is not what it first seems."
To find out more, readers – at least, those without supernatural powers – will have to wait until Sept. 27.
The ubiquitous Bible in the bedside drawer of a hotel room is getting a technology upgrade in Britain, where the Hotel Indigo, located in Newcastle, is swapping out its paper Bibles for Kindles pre-loaded with the text.
The hotel is scheduled to try it out for a two-week period, from yesterday to July 16, and plans have been made to extend the service to the company’s 44 locations around the world if it’s a success.
General manager of the hotel Adam Munday said the move was an attempt to honor Newcastle’s history as one of the biggest print areas in the country.
“We wanted to reflect this literary history in a very contemporary way,” he told the Telegraph.
If Hotel Indigo guests want another religious text, they are able to purchase another via the Kindle as long as it costs no more than five pounds. Guests can buy other books on the device, but must pay for them separately.
According to a report by MSNBC, the Gideon Society which has been placing Bibles in hotel rooms since 1908, estimates that each Bible left in a hotel room will be read by about 2,300 people.
Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians once counted biblical scholar Bart Ehrman among their number. But Ehrman eventually became an agnostic, and many of his former brethren have found fault in his bestselling books that question common beliefs about Jesus Christ, Scripture, and the early days of Christianity.
His newest book has turned some of his perennial critics into fans, at least temporarily. In "Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth," Ehrman decimates the persistent arguments of those who not only deny the divinity of Jesus but insist that no such man ever even existed.
In an interview, I asked Ehrman about the motives of the "mythicists," the evidence supporting the existence of Jesus, and his own spiritual beliefs.
Q: As you explain in your book, many mythicists continue to try to debunk the very existence of Jesus Christ. What's the motivation of those who try to turn Jesus into an imaginary figure?
A: It's been a bit of a mystery. I don't have a solid answer, but I have a hunch. It's based on the fact that everybody who’s a mythicist is a very strong agnostic or, more typically, a hard-core atheist.
And virtually [all mythicists are] diehard opponent[s] of organized religion. They think it's done so much harm in the world, not just crusades and inquisitions, but by supporting slavery and racism and sexism and so forth.
These people, who are quite strongly opposed to religion, live in a culture where the dominant religion is Christianity. These people think that by showing Christianity is founded on a myth, they can show that it's in fact a fairy tale not worthy of belief.
Q: How influential are these people?
A: They are not influential among scholars of antiquity, historians of the ancient world, classicists, and biblical scholars. There, they've made virtually no impact.
Where they have made an impact is in popular circles, especially with the advent of the Internet. There is an increasing following of these people on the Internet, and a number of them have written books that have sold a lot of copies.
Q: Does the existence of Jesus matter for people who aren't Christian?
A: For people who have allegiance at all to Jesus, whether they consider themselves Christian or consider him an ethical teacher, it matters whether he existed or not.
I myself am an agnostic, and one would ask why would it matter to me.
The answer is that history really matters. It's important that we not rewrite it as the way we want it to be. Once we give people that license, it can lead to all sorts of dangerous political and social implications. It's important to get history right even if it's something that we're not that concerned about.
The second thing is that whether we're Christian or not, there's no doubt that Christianity is the most important phenomenon in Western civilization. Jesus stands at the foundation of Christianity and the Christian church. It's important to understand Jesus.
Q: Why has this book been popular among fundamentalist Christians, who have criticized your conclusions in the past?
A: I actually argue for a position that they would be comfortable with, although I do so on grounds that many wouldn't be familiar with.
Most accept Jesus because they have a personal relationship with him, so of course he exists. I approach it as a historian, looking at how a historian would go about establishing that he exists. Just by doing work as a historian, we can show that Jesus existed.
Q: What about historical evidence of his miracles and his divinity?
A: History only deals with matters that cannot invoke supernatural causality. That’s simply the nature of historic evidence.
Q: Many biblical scholars believe that the canonical Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – weren't written by anyone who personally knew Jesus. Does that make it difficult to rely on them as historical narratives of what really happened?
A: Scholars have worked on this problem for a very long time, starting in the 1770s. We're talking about a discipline that’s hundreds of years old.
And the majority of scholars have believed that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalypticist. Jesus believed there were forces of evil that were in charge of this world, and that's why there's so much pain and suffering, but God would soon intervene to overthrow the forces of evil. Jesus probably expected this to happen within his own lifetime or his disciples' lifetimes.
Q: What’s your next book about?
A: My next popular book is about how Jesus became God. How do we get within a hundred years from this apocalyptic prophet who was preaching his message in Galilee to someone who's considered the second member of the Trinity?
Q: I'm curious about your status as an agnostic. I wonder if it's similar to being a political moderate who gets accused by both conservatives and liberals of really being on the other side.
A: For many years, I was a conservative evangelical Christian. At the time, I thought agnostics and atheists were basically the same thing.
It wasn't until I became an agnostic that I realized that atheists basically think agnostics are wimpy atheists, that they don't have the guts to go all the way. And agnostics think that atheists are arrogant.
Q: What do religious people think of agnostics?
A: There's hope because they don't know the answer, and Christians are happy to tell them so they can learn the truth.
Q: Why not become an atheist yourself?
A: I don't know whether there's a superior being. I prefer to call myself an agnostic because it simply acknowledges what I don't know.
Also, I think that given the vastness and awe-inspiring nature of the universe, it does deserve a little bit of humility.
(For more about biblical scholarship, check my recent Christian Science Monitor interview with Elaine Pagels, author of the new book "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.")
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.
The state budget approved last month by Louisana Governor Bobby Jindal eliminates funding that usually goes to the state's public libraries. The budget cuts $896,000 that the facilities typically earmark for Internet access, buying new books, and other services.
“In tight budget times, we prioritized funding for health care and education,” commissioner of administration Paul Rainwater, who is also the governor’s chief budget aide, said in a statement. “Operations such as local libraries can be supported with local, not state dollars.”
Michael DiResto, the spokesman for the Louisiana Division of Administration, told the Library Journal that the new budget includes two federal grants for technology that would allow the state library to purchase e-books, which local libraries can also utilize, and funds for local libraries to host technology training and buy necessary equipment.
However, the Library Journal pointed out that the second grant can provide technology training, but is otherwise specifically for providing laptops for patrons to check out and for the upkeep of technology workstations for blind patrons. Libraries would not be allowed to use the grant for desktop computers inside the library, an area previously covered by state funding.
Director of the Audubon Regional Library Mary Bennett Lindsay told the Library Journal that state aid made up 10 percent of the library’s budget.
“I’m just going to pray,” she said. “We’ll just have to cut back on books and hope we get through. If our server goes down or the switches go down, it’s going to have to come from somewhere. It’s not going to come from utilities. We’re barely paying people above minimum wage, so it’s not going to come out of salary. We may have to cut hours.”
Libraries located in more farflung areas will struggle more with the lack of funding because Louisana libraries in more populated areas are better supported by property taxes. Co-director of the East Baton Rouge Parish library system Patricia Husband said her system would be able to get by without the state money.
“It’s not a major source of income,” she told The Advocate. “It’s not going to interrupt our services.”
"Twilight" fans know that, in Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster series, protagonists Bella Swan and Edward Cullen love the classics they read in school, occasionally referencing books like “Romeo and Juliet” and “Wuthering Heights.”
The New York Times wrote this week about efforts by US publishers to introduce hardcore "Twilight" fans – also known as Twihards – to those older stories of romance by slapping on some "Twilight"-like covers. In fact, the 2009 version of the Emily Brontë classic "Wuthering Heights" published by HarperCollins Children’s Books could easily be mistaken for one of the Stephenie Meyer novels, using as it does the well-known “Twilight” cover format of a black cover with a single red object in the foreground. The new “Wuthering Heights” cover is all black, with a shadowy flight of stairs in the center and a white rose tied with a red ribbon in front of it.
Just in case you missed the point, a red sticker on the cover reads “Bella & Edward’s Favourite Book.”
“As a bookseller, I appreciate the classics and I love when I can sell them to a new generation,” Julie Klein, owner of the New York bookstore Book Revue, told The New York Times of the new classics covers. “Anything that gets kids to look at them.”
But European press was way out ahead on this one. In 2009 papers in France and Britain were already reporting on a “Heights” mini-boom as European readers began snapping up both the "Twilight"-linked and other editions of the Brontë classic.
In France (where the book's title translates as "Les Hauts de Hurlevent"), teens who had never heard of the Brontë sisters were suddenly enthralled, as the Monitor reported at the time. “We have sold as many copies of 'Wuthering Heights' in the first two months of 2009 [when the movie version of "Twilight" was released in Europe] as we usually sell in a whole year,” a spokeswoman for Le Livre de Poche, the publisher of the French translation, told London's Times Online.
British teens, of course, have long been familiar with the homegrown Brontë books. But the 2009 "Twilight"-linked edition of "Wuthering Heights" was rapidly outselling earlier editions of the book, the Monitor reported at that time.
In at least one respect it was a novel experience, Waterstone's classics buyer Simon Robertson said in an interview with the Guardian at the time. “I don't think a vampire's recommendation has ever sent a book to number one before."