Now that frigid temperatures have settled across much of the United States this week, the time seems right to revisit the coldest story in American literature.
We’re talking, of course, about Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” a Yukon tale that frequently shows up in literary anthologies and assigned texts for grade school.
We won’t disclose all of the plot turns here; if you haven’t read “To Build a Fire,” or have forgotten it, we don’t want to spoil the ending for you.
But suffice it to say that London’s celebrated short story includes a lone, unnamed protagonist who gets into some desperate trouble while hiking through the freezing, barren stretches of the North American wilderness with his dog. His only hope to survive the arctic temperature is building a fire. So begins a frantic race to get a blaze going – a task complicated by wind, damp, and fingers numb with cold.
London first published a version of the story in Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young boys, in 1902. The Youth’s Companion text of the story was fairly tame and moralistic, offering a little life lesson to his young readers. But six years later, London wrote a darker, more naturalistic version of the story that would also resonate with adults.
“To Build a Fire” is widely considered to be London’s best short story. The most enthralling aspect of the narrative is the way that London captures the cold. Here’s how London describes the weather – and the main character’s unwillingness to recognize just how dangerous it is:
"Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe...."
Readers can get the full text of “To Build a Fire” for free at this Library of America link. Dress warmly before you start reading it. Even in the middle of August, London’s story can chill you to the bone.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
Author Zora Neale Hurston may be best known for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” but she also penned works in other genres, including plays and short stories, and worked as a noted anthropologist and studier of folklore.
Hurston was born in 1891 in Alabama and grew up in the town of Eatonville, Fla., an all-black town. After attending local and boarding schools for some years, Hurston worked at various jobs, including as a maid to the star of a Gilbert and Sullivan touring group. She finished high school in Baltimore at Morgan College, the high school section of Morgan State University, at the age of 26 by claiming she was 16. She graduated from the school in 1918. She then attended Howard University in Washington, D.C and later transferred to Barnard College in New York.
The author became one of the key members of the Harlem Renaissance. Best-remembered for her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” which was released in 1937, Hurston also published the novels “Moses, Man of the Mountain,” “Seraph on the Suwanee,” and “Jonah’s Gourd Vine.” Hurston also wrote the work “Mules and Men” after she went back to Eatonville and recorded the songs and stories told by the town’s residents. She wrote “Tell My Horse” after she traveled to the Caribbean to examine the voodoo practices of some of its residents. Hurston had received a Guggenheim Fellowship to study this subject.
Hurston is also the author of various short stories, an autobiography titled "Dust Tracks on a Road," and works such as “Mule Bone,” a play that she co-wrote with Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright Langston Hughes.
"Their Eyes Were Watching God” was adapted into a 2005 TV movie starring “Cloud Atlas” actress Halle Berry, “Last Vegas” actor Michael Ealy, and Terrence Howard of “The Best Man Holiday” as well as actress Ruby Dee. The film earned Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Berry.
Isaacson has posted chapters of his untitled book online for people to read, comment, and critique. Interested readers can head to LiveJournal, Scribd, and Medium, where Isaacson has asked for “notes, comments, corrections.”
Considering the content of his book – “a narrative about the people who helped to create the most important innovations of the digital age” – crowdsourcing appears to be an entirely appropriate avenue to pursue, Isaacson has said, pointing out that collaboration is critical to modern-day innovation.
“I got to the point of the book where people started using the Internet to collaborate,” he told Bloomberg Businessweek. “It didn’t take a genius to say, ‘Why don’t I use the Internet to collaborate?’”
And it turns out readers have responded in droves. Some 18,000 people read one post on Medium and Isaacson has received hundreds of comments and e-mails from the different websites, including “close to 200 suggestions that I would consider substantive and useful,” he told NPR.
Among the respondents was Stewart Brand, a primary subject in Isaacson’s book who was a key figure in Silicon Valley in the 1960s and '70s. Brand wrote a long response to one of Isaacson’s posts on Medium which will likely figure prominently in the book.
The crowdsourcing approach has its drawbacks, however. Isaacson was flooded with emails in response to his Scribd post, including spam, and he’ll likely spend a great deal of time sorting through and making sense of all of the responses. What is true in the kitchen may be true in the writing and editing process: Too many cooks spoil the broth.
“You can take this too far,” Isaacson said. “There has to be someone in charge.”
Not surprisingly, then, he still has at least two traditional editors and two fact-checkers at his publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Nonetheless, this novel idea has us wondering – is crowdsourcing the future of book editing? Or to venture farther afield, can the Internet, as Bloomberg Businessweek asks, “redefine the very idea of what constitutes a book?”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
More cast members have been added to the upcoming film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel “Gone Girl.”
Actors Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike had already come aboard as married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, but now others are linked to the project. According to the website IndieWire, “How I Met Your Mother” actor Neil Patrick Harris is on board to portray Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi Collins, while Tyler Perry of “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” will portray Nick’s lawyer Tanner Bolt. In addition, “The Artist” actress Missi Pyle will portray TV host Ellen Abbott and “Almost Famous” actor Patrick Fugit will play one of the detectives assigned to the case of Amy’s disappearance.
“Girl” is set to be released this October.
A US district judge recently ruled that legendary detective Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson reside in the public domain, meaning those who want to write new Holmes stories or craft TV or movie adaptations about the sleuths no longer need to apply to the estate of original “Holmes” author Arthur Conan Doyle – as long as they don't draw on material from any of Doyle's latest writings about Holmes.
We reported this past spring on the civil complaint filed by author Leslie S. Klinger, who is the editor behind “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” as well as other works related to the detective. Klinger filed the complaint after the Conan Doyle estate informed Pegasus Books, the publisher of the short story collection “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes” which Klinger edited, that it would prevent “Company” from being sold by retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble unless Pegasus paid the estate a licensing fee for the use of the characters.
The issue arises in the US because the last 10 Holmes stories were released in America after Jan. 1, 1923. According to US law, works published after 1923 do not enter the public domain until 70 years after the life of the author. But Klinger argued that characters like Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty were well developed in works that appeared before 1923 and so authors or others wishing to use the characters and parts of the stories that don't appear exclusively in those 10 stories should be free to do so without paying a fee to the Conan Doyle estate.
The Illinois federal court that ruled on the case decided that Sherlock, Watson, and elements of many of the stories are indeed in the public domain, and that it is only details from the stories published after Jan. 1, 1923, that cannot yet be freely used.
However, the Conan Doyle estate says this isn’t the end of the matter. During the case, the lawyer representing the estate, Benjamin Allison, posited that Conan Doyle was not finished creating the characters of Holmes, Watson, and others until those last stories were published.
Castillo’s decision allows authors and others to use Holmes, Watson, and other Conan Doyle characters in works as long as details or characters introduced in those last 10 stories (like Watson’s second wife) aren’t mentioned. However, Publishers Weekly writer Andrew Albanese cautions that courts could be ambiguous in their judgments as to whether or not a character was fully "completed" before 1923, possibly leaving writers drawing on the Holmes characters at risk of a lawsuit.
As Castillo wrote in his decision, "[The] Conan Doyle [estate] fails to offer a bright line rule or workable legal standard for determining when characters are sufficiently developed to warrant copyright protection through an entire series."
Allison told PW that the estate is considering an appeal of Castillo’s decision.
Two years ago, I published a Christian Science Monitor op-ed encouraging my fellow Americans to embrace a New Year’s resolution aimed at making the political culture a happier place.
My suggestion was simple: In the coming 12 months, at least once a week,read a political commentator with whom you disagree. If you’re a liberal, give a conservative writer a few moments of your time, and if you’re conservative, give a commentator to your political left a quiet hearing. My hope was that this small exercise in even-handedness might help bridge the country’s partisan divide.
My essay took on a life of its own, leading to lots of e-mails and a few talk show appearances, including a guest slot on National Public Radio.
A teacher from a solidly liberal neighborhood in Boston called to say that he’d try my resolution on his students, none of whom could imagine having anything good to say about the recent presidency of George W. Bush. I chuckled at that observation, since it seemed the mirror opposite of my own experience in my red-state Louisiana home where President Barack Obama, rather than Bush, has been the polarizing figure.
I’m now approaching my second New Year’s Day since my modest proposal went public and, as any casual observer of the news cycle knows, the country seems as politically divided as ever. But I’m continuing to try, in my own small way, to practice what I preach, keeping company with political voices that don’t naturally align with my own.
Although I’m supposed to be a veteran at this sort of thing, I still get as exasperated as the next guy with opinions I find wrong-headed.
Lately, for example, I’ve found myself within the pages of “The Cushion in the Road,” Alice Walker’s latest collection of commentaries, many of them inspired by her political activism. As a journalist who’s deeply troubled by any government that quashes free speech, I’ve bristled while reading Walker’s admiring reflections on former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who has a long track record in limiting press freedoms.
Walker and I will never agree on that score, but, as I noted in my 2011 op-ed, reading opposing views doesn’t have to mean giving up your own. In fact, discourse with a rival voice can actually strengthen one’s previously held convictions. But the point is that ideas are usually made better, not worse, when they’re measured against alternatives.
That’s why I grudgingly kept reading Walker’s words. An open book, I have found, is a small gesture of tolerance in itself. The natural rhythm of reading, in which an author talks from the page – and only one voice speaks at a time – helps cultivate the practice of engaging with a perspective rather than simply trying to shout it down.
This small insight has led me to think that just about any kind of reading, whether it be a novel or poem or essay, might be a helpful resource for us in these deeply divisive times.
It might not be coincidental, after all, that as the pastime of reading has declined in the United States, partisanship has risen. Might a renaissance in reading make us more open to each other, more willing to embrace difference?
To be sure, active literacy doesn’t always advance tolerance. That some of the most highly cultivated minds of the Third Reich were able to indulge so much hatred is proof of that.
But in general, societies that celebrate reading tend to have an easier time sustaining a friendly marketplace of ideas.
Which is why I’m proposing a more modest resolution for myself and my fellow citizens this New Year’s: Read more in 2014. Read widely and read deeply. Each time we open a book, we’re training ourselves to be more open to the world. That seems like a very promising way to make our politics better.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
Brian Stelter's book "Top of the Morning," which focuses on the behind-the-scenes stories of TV morning news shows – including "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show" – is being developed as a TV movie for the Lifetime Channel, according to Deadline.
"Top of the Morning" was originally released this past April.
Since the book covers some high-profile morning shows, the question now is, as Deadline writer Lisa de Moraes puts it, "the important stuff – casting! Who should play Matt Lauer? Ann Curry? George Stephanopoulos? Robin Roberts? Sam Champion?"
As we reported this spring, "Top of the Morning" received a lot of advance buzz but reviews were tepid, with critics saying the book has "more than a little overblown prose" and what Hollywood Reporter writer Andy Lewis called a lack of original reporting.
"Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, who aroused ire following the release of an interview in which he made controversial comments about homosexuality and race relations, experienced increased sales for his book "Happy, Happy, Happy" in the days after the interview hit national news.
"Happy" was originally released this past May.
In Robertson's Dec. 18 interview in GQ Magazine, he said of contemporary society, "Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong... sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men."
Robertson also said that when he was growing up in Louisiana before the civil rights movement, "I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field.... They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’ – not a word!.... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
Between the week ending on Dec. 15 and the week ending on Dec. 22, sales for "Happy" increased by 86 percent, according to Publishers Weekly.
"Happy" publisher Simon & Schuster elected to continue selling the title after Robertson's comments were released. Jonathan Merkh of Howard Books, the imprint of S&S which released the title, told Publishers Weekly, "While Phil Robertson has always been known for his opinions, we do not condone his recent remarks, nor do they reflect the views of Howard Books or Simon & Schuster. In our experience publishing the Duck Commander books he has always treated one and all with the utmost respect regardless of political leaning, sexual orientation or religious views, and we believe that the Phil Robertson we know is more properly represented by this statement from his GQ interview: 'I would never treat anyone with disrespect just because they are different from me. We are all created by the Almighty and like Him, I love all of humanity. We would all be better off if we loved God and loved each other.'"
Some agree that the book should stay on shelves. As pointed out by Los Angeles Times writer Hector Tobar, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression president Chris Finan believes that even considering yanking the title is endangering the right to freedom of speech.
"Booksellers sell books, including books that some people find offensive,” Finan said in a statement. "While booksellers make individual choices about what to sell, we believe our customers have a right to purchase any book that is protected by the First Amendment."
Robertson was temporarily removed from "Duck Dynasty" by network A&E following the release of his comments, but he was soon reinstated.
He ran into further controversy earlier this week when remarks he made in 2009, in which he advised those seeking wives, "You got to marry these girls when they are about 15 or 16," resurfaced.
Other "Duck Dynasty" cast members have also released titles, including Si Robertson's book "Si-Cology" and Kay Robertson's "Miss Kay's Duck Commander Kitchen."
It was one of the publishing world’s biggest secrets: Robert Galbraith, the so-called retired military policeman-turned-author of the surprise detective novel hit, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” was a pseudonym for none other than JK Rowling.
Now, Chris Gossage, the lawyer who represented the author and who leaked the news last July, has been reprimanded with a fine and a warning. Recent reports reveal Gossage has been fined 1,000 pounds ($1,650) and reprimanded with a written warning.
Rowling has said she was “very angry” and “disappointed” by the betrayal. "I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced," Rowling said in a statement in July. "To say that I am disappointed is an understatement."
The novel, released last April, is about a war veteran turned detective who investigates the mysterious death of a model.
Though it garnered strong reviews, it struggled with sales, having originally sold just 1,500 copies. That is, until Gossage leaked Rowling’s identity last July and the book surged more than 5,000 places to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.
“At the time, Rowling, 48, said it had been "wonderful" to publish without hype or expectation and to get feedback under a different name even if that meant some publishers rejected her work as they had when she first touted her Harry Potter books,” The Chicago Tribune reported.
According to reports, Gossage revealed pseudonymous Galbraith’s real identity to his wife, who then told her friend Judith Callegari, who in turn tweeted the leak to journalist India Knight at the Sunday Times of London.
Gossage has since apologized and has made a donation to the Soldiers’ Charity, the group to which Rowling has said all proceeds from her book will be donated.
Fortunately for Rowling – er, Galbraith – fans, that’s not the end of the story.
On her website, Rowling said, “To those who have asked for a sequel, Robert fully intends to keep writing the series, although he will probably continue to turn down personal appearances.”
A fine ending to this real-life literary whodunit.
Can books connect young people the way social media does?
Kate DiCamillo thinks so and has made it her mission to connect youth through reading.
The Library of Congress announced this morning that the author – DiCamillo is best known for her movie-adapted “Because of Winn-Dixie,” and the Newbery Medal-winning “The Tale of Despereaux” – is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in 2014 and 2015. She will be sworn in Jan. 10 and will use her platform to promote reading to young adults.
Her theme for her ambassadorship is “stories connect us.”
“The whole thing is pretty intimidating; but it is also deeply, deeply gratifying, because for the next two years, I will get to go around the country talking about what matters to me, and what matters to me is this: people connecting through stories,” DiCamillo said on her Facebook page.
The New York Times describes DiCamillo as a “star of the publishing world, a winner of the Newbery Medal, and a reliable best seller” who “writes fluidly across genres and age groups.”
As a child growing up in Florida with frequent bouts of illnesses, DiCamillo found a connection to the outside world through books such as “The Twenty-One Balloons.”
As an adult, she moved to Minnesota, where she fell into a job as a picker in a book warehouse. There, in the children’s section, she fell in love with children’s books and pursued a career as a young adult author.
Her first book, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” is about the deep connection between a lonely little girl and a dog named after a Southern supermarket chain. It went on to receive a Newbery Honor and a film adaptation.
She has since written nearly 20 books that explore both the melancholy and the magic of childhood. Her most recent book is the young adult novel “Flora & Ulysses," about a girl and her sidekick, a squirrel with superpowers. The book is already an acclaimed bestseller.
In her new role as ambassador, DiCamillo plans to travel the country encouraging shared reading experiences, such as “community reading projects where kids in cities and towns all read the same book,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The special position known as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was created by the Library of Congress in 2008 to raise awareness about children’s literacy and promote reading among young people. Previous ambassadors have included Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, and Walter Dean Myers.
DiCamillo, an enthusiastic champion of reading and a natural ambassador to youth, will promote books as a way to connect young people the way social media can.
“When we read together, we connect. Together, we see the world. Together, we see each other," she says on the website of the Library of Congress.