Summer Reading Guide (From 1852)

Looking for a good summer read? In 1852, the New York Times highlighted the following notable books to get you through the hot months. Due to copyright lapses and fair use laws, all of these are available to read now, so dive in! (SPOILER ALERT: Many of the books are about hating the Pope).

1. 'Claret and Olives' by Angus B. Reach

Summary: Travel dispatches from a wine tour of the South of France make up what is essentially Sideways for the 1800s. Our man Angus goes around France getting drunk, describing soil, and ruminating about what's making the peasant class so darn upset.

Key Passage: "…my respected landlord was far more in his element than at home with his wife. He eat more, drank more, talked more, and laughed more than any two men present. Afterwards he grew tender and sentimental, and professed himself to be an ardent lover of his kind—a proposition which I suspect he afterwards narrowed specially in favor of a most mosquito-ridden lady next to him…But on the morrow, my repeatable entertainer had a bad headache, a yellow visage, and an entire forgetfulness of how he had got home at all."

What the Times said: "...the extremely picturesque and life-like narrative of a tour in the South of France, performed last year in the season of the vintage." They liked it!

[Read the full text of Claret and Olives here.]

2. 'Margaret Cecil, Or, I Can, Because I Ought' by Catherine Douglas Bell (a.k.a. Cousin Kate)

Summary: Part of a series of holier-than-thou morality tales for young women, Margaret Cecil, Or, I Can, Because I Ought, tells the story of Margaret, a chaste girl who achieves chastity through her unrelenting chasteness.

Key Passage: “Margaret went for the Bible, and seated herself upon a chair by the bedside. Before she began to read, Mrs. Cecil offered up a few simple earnest words of prayer, that God, for His dear Son’s sake, would send His Holy Spirit to be with them at that time, to open their hearts to understand and believe His words, and to enable them to submit to His will, whatever it might be. And the mother’s prayer was answered.”

What the Times said: "[A tale] from which the fire of passion and the exaggeration of romance are anxiously excluded.” This is presented as a good thing.

[Read the full text of Margaret Cecil here.]

3. 'A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway' by Ida Pfeiffer

Summary: Ida Pfeiffer was an Austrian heiress and one of the world's first female explorers. This collection of travel writing covers her journey through the unforgiving cold of Scandinavia.

Key Passage: "Haveniord is surrounded by a most beautiful and picturesque field of lava, which at first swells to a gentle eminence, then sinks again, and finally stretches in one wide plain to the neighboring hills."

What the Times said: "As a partial compensation for maternal neglect, we observe that the Peripatetie dedicates ‘the volume to her children.’"

[Read A Journey to Iceland and Travels in Sweden and Norway in its entirety here.]

4. 'Thorpe, a Quiet English Town, and Human Life Therein' by William Mountford

Summary: Who wants to read a 360-page prose poem about a town and its cordial Presbyterian shenanigans? Billy Mountford has got you covered.

Key Passage: “It is a good, healthy place. As being God’s it is very good, but not quite so good as being man’s. That, I suppose, is the exact truth. Though some of the gentry are very well inclined to the poor at times, such as Christmas, or when there is cholera.”

What the Times said: “A delightful invigorating prose poem…there are few books more specially adapted to summer reading al fresco than this.” The Times really ate this crap up.

[Read Thorpe, a Quite English Town in its entirety here.]

5. 'History of the War of Independence of the United States of America' by Charles Botta

Summary: This book was updated and re-released in 1852 (it was originally published around 43 years prior). It's translated from the original Italian and the author impressively shoehorns Italian nationalism into a history book about the American Revolution.

Key Passage: “America, and especially some parts of it, having been discovered by the genius and intrepidity of Italians, received, at various times, as into a place of asylum, the men whom political or religious disturbances had driven from their own countries in Europe.”

What the Times said: “[Botta’s] authorities were all in a language with which he could scarcely be idiomatically familiar. We may well be surprised that he made so fair a book; and we have to smile occasionally at the speeches, which, after the manner of Flavius Josephus, he puts in the mouths of his heroes.” Basically: It's historically inaccurate, but you gotta love the weirdo for trying.

[Read History of the War of Independence of the United States of America in its entirety here.]

6. 'Letters to the Hon. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the United States' by Kirwan

U of Michigan

Summary: The pseudonymous "Kirwan" rose to fame with a series of letters to a Roman Catholic Bishop. He's back and better than ever with a series of unsolicited notes to the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. If you think he asks Justice Taney questions about law, you are sorely mistaken—Kirwan pretty much just opens up a firehose of anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Key Passage: "My Dear Sir,—Up to this point I have sought to place before you what I consider to be the true character of the Romish Church, of its priests, its ceremonies, its impostures, and sporty And my object in all this is avowed—to demonstrate to you, and to the entire American people, so far as I can arrest their attention, that nothing but evil—unmingled evil—can be expected from the spread of Popery in this land."

What the Times said: "We doubt whether the book will make any converts. The Rev. Doctor’s facts will surely be taken for falsities, and his logic for dogmatism,—the fate of many a better book."

[Read Letters to the Hon. Roger B. Taney in its entirety here.]

7. 'Gaieties and Gravities' by Horace Smith

Summary: Here comes the comedy! Mid-19th century yuckster Horace Smith's collection of essays will have you coughing up blood with laughter (because you probably have tuberculosis). Classic riffs include "My Tea-Kettle," "On Noses," "Miss Hebe Hoggins's Account of a Literary Society in Houndsditch," "On Lips and Kissing," and the side-splitting, "Ugly Women."

Key Passage: From the aforementioned "Ugly Women": "What a blessing for these unhandsome damsels whom we treat still more unhandsomely by our fastidious neglect, that some of us are less squeamish in our tastes, and more impartial in our attentions!"


What the Times said: “A pleasant volume…No reading can be racier.” They must be talking about "My Tea-Kettle."

[Read Gaieties and Gravities in its entirety here.]

8. 'Crimes of the house of Austria against mankind' by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody

Summary: Did somebody say, "beach read"??? This indictment against the Hapsburghs is a real page-turner that will have you hooked, even if you aren't particularly anti-Hapsburgh...yet.

Key Passage: "The ruthless will to destroy their constitutional rights in Charles V.—that can surprise us no longer; that is the inherited spirit, the essence of the family of Hapsburgh."

What the Times Said: "It is of the same class of reading as the 'Lives of the Highwaymen,' or the 'Pirate’s Own Book.'" So, uh, be sure to pick it up if you like those books.

[Read Crimes of the House of Austria Against Mankind in its entirety here.]

9. 'The Confessions of an Attorney' By Samuel Warren, Charles Dickens

Summary: A series of short stories written by a "Gustavas Sharp, ESQ." (thought to be Samuel Warren), with essays on law by Charles Dickens interspersed. Think Perry Mason, but way more highfalutin.

Key Passage: "Caleb Jennings, a shoemaker, cobbler, snob—using the last word in its genuine classical sense, and by no means according to the modern interpretation by which it is held to signify a genteel sneak or pretender—he was anything but that—occupied, some twelve or thirteen years ago, a stall at Watley, which, according to the traditions of the place, had been hereditary in his family for several generations." (The Dickens bits are better.)

What the Times said: "Messrs. Cornish, Lamport & Co., have collected several brilliant Nouvelettes, evidently by one pen, from the English Magazines…They abound in various incident, and do good service in showing up the abuses of the English Common law system." No mention of Dickens.

[Read The Confessions of an Attorney in its entirety here.]

10. 'The Desert Home' by Captain Mayne Reid

Summary: This novel about an English family living in the American desert is a must-read for fans of survivalist fiction and descriptions of the desert written by someone who had probably never been to one (lots of non-indigenous elk here).

Key Passage: "I dropped my rifle, and seized hold of the points, with the intention of extricating myself: but before I could do so, the elk had risen to his feet, and with a powerful jerk of his head tossed me high into the air."

What the Times said: “The story-teller contrives to throw an astonishing degree of interest. The illustrations are appropriate.”

[Read The Desert Home in its entirety here.]

11. 'Tales Illustrating the Passions' by G.P.R. James

Summary: Collected stories about remorse, jealousy, revenge, despair, and hatred from someone who clearly needed to work some shit out.

Key Passage: "I care for, feel for, nothing upon the earth: the past and the future are all one blank, without a sweet memory, without a bright hope. I have left behind me every thing that had any association with past times, and with the future I have nothing to do."

What the Times said: "[The stories] were highly popular some years ago and are certainly not the worst of his numberless writings." Cheer up, G.P.R., that ain't so bad!

[Read Tales Illustrating the Passions in its entirety here.]

12. 'Wheat or Chaff?' by the Rev. J.C. Ryle

Summary: 350 pages of Reverend Ryle asking, "YOU PIOUS ENOUGH, BRO?"

Key Passage: "You attend church perhaps. You go to the Lord’s table. You like good people. You can distinguish between good preaching and bad. You think Popery false, and oppose it warmly. You think Protestantism true, and support it cordially. You subscribe to religious societies. You attend religious meetings. You sometimes read religious books. It is well: it is very well. It is good: it is all very good. It is more than can be said of many. But still this is not a straightforward answer to my question,—Are you wheat, or are you chaff?"

What the Times said: "The author is remarkable for the cogency of his reasoning and earnestness of eloquence. He is terse and epigrammatic in style, and rendered extremely impressive by unmistakable sincerity of purpose. The book must do great good." Kiss his butt all you want, but that's not how you become wheat.

[Read Wheat or Chaff? in its entirety here.]

13. 'My First Visit to Europe: Or, Sketches of Society, Scenery, and Antiquities' by Andrew Dickinson

Summary: Guy does semester abroad, won't shut up about it.

Key Passage: "Although I knew that the Sabbath was not respected in France, I was utterly astounded at the sight of their festivities! Sunday—why, it is their great day of business and amusement, more than any other day! The shops are all open…Alas! poor creatures! they have not the slightest idea of its wickedness."

What the Times said: "Mr. Dickinson travelled abroad without an armory of classic and historic recollections; but he is gifted with a valuable faculty of observation, clear perceptions and much religious feeling. His sketches are graphic and interesting."

[Read My First Visit to Europe in its entirety here.]

10 Fascinating Facts About The Scarlet Letter

These days, we tend to think about The Scarlet Letter in relation to high school students struggling with their English papers, but we didn’t always see the book that way. When Nathaniel Hawthorne published the novel on March 16, 1850, it was a juicy bestseller about an adulterous woman forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest by a community steeped in religious hypocrisy. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the classic tome.


Hawthorne, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts, was aware of his messy Puritan heritage. His great-great-grandfather William Hathorne came to Salem in 1636. As the Massachusetts Bay delegate, he tried to rid the town of Quakers by having them whipped and dragged through the street half naked. His son, John Hathorne, was even worse. As a magistrate during the Salem witch trials of 1692, he examined more than one hundred accused witches, and found them all guilty. Hawthorne detested this legacy and distanced himself from his ancestors by adding the “W” to the spelling of his name.


Unable to support his family by publishing short stories, Hawthorne took a politically appointed post at the Salem Custom House in 1846. Three years later, he was fired because of a political shakeup. The loss of his job, as well as the death of his mother, depressed Hawthorne, but he was also furious at Salem. "I detest this town so much that I hate to go out into the streets, or to have people see me,” he said.

It was in this mood that he started The Scarlet Letter.


In 1846, Hawthorne's sister-in-law Elizabeth Peabody published the work of Hungarian linguist Charles Kraitsir. Two years later, it was discovered that Kraitsir’s wife had seduced several of his students at the University of Virginia. He left his wife and daughter in Philadelphia and fled to Peabody for help. Peabody responded by going to Philadelphia in an attempt to gain guardianship of the daughter. This didn’t go over so well with the wife. She followed Peabody back to Boston and confronted her husband. In response, Peabody and Kraitsir tried to get her committed to a lunatic asylum. The press got wind of the story and Kraitsir was skewered for looking weak and hiding behind Peabody’s skirts. Hawthorne watched as the scandal surrounding a woman’s affairs played out on the public stage, right as he was starting The Scarlet Letter.


Hawthorne must have known there was historical precedence for The Scarlet Letter. According to a 1658 law in Plymouth, people caught in adultery were whipped and forced “to weare two Capitall letters namely A D cut out in cloth and sowed on theire vpermost Garments on theire arme or backe.” If they ever took the letters off, they would be publicly whipped again. A similar law was enacted in Salem.

In the town of York (now in Maine) in 1651, near where Hawthorne’s family owned property, a woman named Mary Batchellor was whipped 40 lashes for adultery and forced to wear an ‘A’ on her clothes. She was married to Stephen Batchellor, a minister over 80 years old. Sound familiar?


In an 1871 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, editor James T. Fields wrote about being Hawthorne’s champion. Not only did he try to get Hawthorne reinstated in his Custom House post, Fields said he convinced Hawthorne to write The Scarlet Letter as a novel. One day, while trying to encourage the despondent writer ("'Who would risk publishing a book for me, the most unpopular writer in America?' 'I would,' said I"), Fields noticed Hawthorne’s bureau. He said he bet Hawthorne had already written something new and that it was in one of the drawers. Hawthorne, flabbergasted, pulled out a manuscript. “How in Heaven's name did you know this thing was there?” he said. He gave Fields the “germ” of The Scarlet Letter. Fields then persuaded Hawthorne to alter “the plan of that story” and write a full-sized book. The rest is history.

Or is it? Hawthorne’s wife Sophia said of Fields’s claims: “He has made the absurd boast that he was the sole cause of the Scarlet Letter being published!" She added that Edwin Percy Whipple was the one who encouraged Hawthorne.


Hester Prynne is a tall, dignified character who endures her outcast status with grace and strength. Although she has fallen to a low place as an adulteress with an illegitimate child, she becomes a successful seamstress and raises her daughter even though the authorities want to take the child away. As such, she’s a complex character who embodies what happens when a woman breaks societal rules. Hawthorne not only knew accomplished women such as Peabody and Margaret Fuller, he was writing The Scarlet Letter directly after the first women's rights convention in New York in 1848. He was one of the first American writers to depict “women’s rights, women’s work, women in relation to men, and social change,” according to biographer Brenda Wineapple.


As you probably know, Hawthorne hits you in the head with symbolism throughout The Scarlet Letter, starting with the characters’ names—Pearl for an unwanted child, Roger Chillingworth for a twisted, cold man, Arthur Dimmesdale for a man whose education cannot lead him to truth. From the wild woods to the rosebush by the jail to the embroidered ‘A’ itself, it’s easy to see why The Scarlet Letter is the book that launched a thousand literary essays.


In the 87,000-plus words that make up The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne used “ignominy” 16 times, “ignominious” seven times, and “ignominiously” once. He apparently had affection for the word, which means dishonor, infamy, disgrace, or shame. Either that, or he needed a thesaurus.


While the reviews were generally positive, others condemned The Scarlet Letter as smut. For example, this 1851 review by Reverend Arthur Cleveland Coxe: “Why has our author selected such a theme? … Is it, in short, because a running underside of filth has become as requisite to a romance, as death in the fifth act to a tragedy? Is the French era actually begun in our literature? … we honestly believe that "the Scarlet Letter" has already done not a little to degrade our literature, and to encourage social licentiousness.” This kind of rhetoric didn’t hurt sales. In fact, The Scarlet Letter’s initial print run of 2500 books sold out in 10 days.


The Scarlet Letter made Hawthorne a well-known writer, allowed him to purchase a home in Concord, and insured an audience for books like The House of Seven Gables. However, The Scarlet Letter didn’t make Hawthorne rich. Despite its success in the U.S. and abroad, royalties weren’t that great—overseas editions paid less than a penny per copy. Hawthorne only made $1500 from the book over the remaining 14 years of his life. He was never able to escape the money troubles that plagued him.

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Pop Culture
Is the True Identity of Voldemort's Pet Snake Hidden in the New Fantastic Beasts Trailer?
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Warner Bros.

In the Harry Potter series, many of Voldemort's horcruxes were give rich backstories, like Tom Riddle's diary, Marvolo Gaunt's ring, and of course, Harry himself. But the most personal horcrux containing a fragment of Voldemort's soul is also the biggest mystery. Voldemort carries Nagini the snake with him wherever he goes, but we still don't know how the two met or where Nagini came from. Fans may not have to wait much longer to find out: One fan theory laid out by Vanity Fair suggests that Nagini is actually a cursed witch, and her true identity will be revealed in the next Fantastic Beasts movie.

On March 13, the trailer dropped for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment in the Harry Potter prequel series written by J.K. Rowling. The clips include lots of goodies for fans—including a first look at Jude Law as young Dumbledore—but one potential bombshell requires closer examination.

Pay attention at the 1:07 mark in the video below and you'll see Claudia Kim, the actress playing a new, unnamed character in the film. While we don't know much about her yet, Pottermore tells us that she is a Maledictus or “someone who suffers from a ‘blood curse’ that turns them into a beast.” This revelation led some fans to suspect the beast she transforms into is Nagini, the snake destined to be Voldemort's companion.

That isn't the only clue backing up the theory. The second piece of evidence comes in the trailer at the 1:17 mark: There, you can see an advertisement for a "wizarding circus," featuring a poster of a woman resembling Kim constricted a by massive snake.

If Kim's character does turn out to be Nagini, the theory still doesn't explain how she eventually joins forces with Voldemort and becomes his horcrux. Fans will have to wait until the film's release on November 16, 2018 for answers. Fortunately, there are plenty of other Harry Potter fan theories to study up on in the meantime.

[h/t Vanity Fair]


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