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Summer Reading Guide (From 1852)

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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.]

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Warner Bros.
This Harry Potter Candle Melts to Reveal Your Hogwarts House—and Smells Amazing
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Warner Bros.

As it gets darker and colder outside, the thought of lighting a candle in your room and curling up with a good book becomes more appealing. A sorting hat candle from the Muggle Library Candles Etsy store makes the perfect companion to whatever Harry Potter book you happen to be re-reading for the hundredth time this season. According to the Cleveland news outlet WKYC, the candle slowly reveals your Hogwarts house as it burns.

From the outside, the item looks like a normal white candle. But when lit, the outer layer of plain wax melts away, allowing the colorful interior to poke through. The candles come in one of four concealed colors: red for Gryffindor, blue for Ravenclaw, yellow for Hufflepuff, and green for Slytherin. The only way to know which house you’re destined to match with is by purchasing a candle and putting it to use. According to the label, the scent evokes “excitement, fear, and nervousness.” The smell can also be described as lemon with sandalwood, vanilla, and patchouli.

Due to its viral popularity, the Fort Worth, Texas-based Etsy store has put all orders on hold while working to get its current batch of shipments out to customers. You can follow Muggle Library Candles on Instagram for updates on the sorting candle, as well as other Harry Potter-themed candles in their repertoire, like parseltongue and free elf.

[h/t WKYC]

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”


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