Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?

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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

8 Tips For Overcoming 'Reader's Block'

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iStock.com/deyangeorgiev

We’ve all been there. Your eyes glaze over, and you can’t get past the first paragraph on the page. Or perhaps you can’t will yourself to pick up a book in the first place. “Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable, but it might require a little creativity and effort on your part. Read on to hear tips from longtime readers who have been through it—and managed to come out on the other side of a good book.

1. START EASY.

If your reading skills are a little rusty, it’s probably best not to start with War and Peace—or any of the classics, for that matter. Sometimes people fall into the trap of being overly ambitious and choosing one of the literary “greats” without stopping to question whether they actually want to read it. “This is the problem with readers: we aim too high,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian. “Ultimately, reader's block is caused by the great is-ought dilemma. You know you should, but you probably won't.” Instead of setting yourself up for failure, start off with something short and easy to digest. Once you get back into the swing of things, you can graduate to more challenging books.

2. TRY A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES ...

Compared to a 300-page novel, short stories won’t seem like such an insurmountable task. Ginni Chen, Barnes and Noble’s “Literary Lady,” suggests trying a collection of stories written by different authors. That way, you’ll have the chance to figure out which styles and subjects you enjoy most. In an advice column addressed to someone with reader’s block, Chen recommended the Best American Short Stories and the Best American Nonrequired Reading collection. And if you want to start really small, there’s an app called Serial Box that will send you 150-character stories as push notifications.

3. … OR A DIFFERENT GENRE.

Sometimes, it helps to change up your routine and read something outside of your comfort zone or usual go-to. It worked for Bustle writer Charlotte Ahlin, who wrote, “I once read about four Vonneguts in a row and then spent a week feeling crushing despair over the human condition. Your mind needs a varied diet of books to stay sharp.” In a blog for the Iredell County Public Library in Statesville, North Carolina, book lover Michele Coleman offered similar testimony. “For me during my last slump or block, I found browsing the non-fiction eased my mind,” she wrote. Do you enjoy mystery? She suggests switching it up and reading a humorous book. Is romance your thing? Give historical fiction a shot instead.

4. READ PAGE 69 BEFORE COMMITTING TO A BOOK.

This unusual tip comes from John Sutherland, an English professor and the author of How to Read a Novel. As Jeffries of The Guardian puts it, “Once you have read page 69, you will have an idea of whether the book is up your street. (Why he didn't say page 56 is anybody's guess.)” If that snippet doesn’t appeal to you, put it back on the shelf. Otherwise you might get stuck reading something that isn’t suited to your tastes, which can make your reader’s block even worse.

5. DON’T FEEL OBLIGATED TO FINISH A BOOK IF YOU’RE NOT ENJOYING IT.

Reading is supposed to be enjoyable—not a chore. If you find yourself filled with dread any time you pick up the book you’re currently reading, you may want to rethink your choice of material. If you feel guilty about abandoning a book, just use this quote from philosopher Francis Bacon as an excuse: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Interestingly, Goodreads compiles a list of the most popular abandoned books based on its user data, so you’ll be in good company if Infinite Jest goes infinitely unfinished.

6. LISTEN TO AN AUDIOBOOK.

Many traditionalists are of the opinion that audiobooks don’t really count as “reading,” but some researchers would disagree. One 2016 study found no difference in reading comprehension between those who had listened to an audiobook and those who had used an e-reader. It may seem counterintuitive, but audiobooks can also help beat reader's block, according to Jonathan Douglas, director of the UK's National Literacy Trust. This is because they can help reignite your passion for learning and consuming stories at a time when you’re having difficulty reading. Try listening to the audiobook while you drive to work, clean your house, or work out. You’ll feel extra accomplished for having done two productive things at once, and it may provide the momentum you need to get back into reading.

7. DISCONNECT FROM TECHNOLOGY.

In an article for Arré, writer Karan Mujoo said he’s been an avid reader since childhood. Yet he still occasionally struggles with reader’s block, and finds himself abandoning book after book when they fail to capture his interest. In his case, the availability of quick entertainment via streaming platforms like Netflix is simply too difficult to resist. “Unlike books, which require imagination and effort on the part of the reader, these shows serve you everything on a platter,” he writes. “Why then, should we expend our energies in reading, imagining, and creating a world when it has already been done for us?” Faced with a similar predicament, writer Hugh McGuire explained that his inability to focus on books was due to a “digital dopamine addiction” that stemmed from his consumption of television and online articles. With a few adjustments, though, he was able to get back into a regular reading habit. He suggests removing smartphones and computers from your bedroom, refraining from watching TV after dinner, and reading a book each night before bed. “I am reading books now more than I have in years,” he writes.

8. REREAD AN OLD FAVORITE.

When all else fails, “Literary Lady” Chen recommends paying a visit to an old friend. Your favorite books are memorable for a reason, and sometimes rereading a beloved book for the third time is all it takes to lift the reader’s block curse. You may also want to investigate options that are similar to your favorite authors and books. Book Browse is a good resource for finding “read-alikes” that might suit your tastes, and Literature Map will give you a visual overview of authors you may enjoy.

Dutton's New Young Adult Books Are the Size of a Smartphone—and They're Horizontal

Sometimes, the desire to read takes a backseat to how cumbersome it can be to carry a hardback book around all day, but a new line of pocket-sized volumes will ensure that’s never a problem. Dutton Books for Young Readers, a Penguin Random House imprint, has released a new line of books that are only a fraction of the size of the traditional hardback, as The New York Times reports.

The new design takes inspiration from the popular Dutch books known as dwarsliggers. In contrast to nearly every other book on the market, the text of these minute volumes is oriented horizontally, creating a flipbook effect. (The term comes from the Dutch words dwars—meaning crossways—and liggen—to lie.) The Dutton books are about the size of a smartphone, with extra-thin pages that make each volume only as thick as your finger. In other words, you'll only need one hand to read them.

A copy of the Penguin Mini version of 'Paper Towns' resting on two open copies of the book
Penguin Random House

The Penguin Minis are made by a Dutch printer, Royal Jongbloed, which is currently the only company in the world that makes books in this specific format. It uses ultra-thin paper sourced from just one Finnish mill.

The first books released in the new format are young adult novels by none other than Mental Floss friend John Green, host of our YouTube series Scatterbrained. You can buy the tiny versions of The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, An Abundance of Katherines, and Looking for Alaska at major retailers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores for $12 each. (There's also a boxed set of all four books on Amazon for $27.)

A boxed set of John Green novels released as Penguin Minis
Penguin Random House

Dutton is printing 500,000 copies for the first run, and if the compact novels prove popular over the holidays, there will be more volumes on their way in the future.

[h/t The New York Times]

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