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6 Beach Reads From 100 Years Ago

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Most of the old books that you encounter today are official “classics,” meaning that though they were written centuries ago, they carry some lasting beauty, some deep human truth that transpires age. And many of them are painfully dry—you only read them because you want to be able to say, “I felt Hugo expressed more pathos for the French underclasses in Les Miserables than in The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at parties. (And you will remember to pronounce “Dame” as “Dahm.”)

But don’t forget, people of 100 years ago didn’t like to be bored any more than you do! They might have had longer attention spans, but they still liked to devote those attention spans to something fun. Mysteries, thrillers, romances, and fantasy abounded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We’ve just forgotten about them because not enough English professors write dissertations about crime-fighting ladies of the Edwardian Age.

So here we present some forgotten, fun reads of the past. Not only are they free on Google Books (except the naughty ones at the bottom!), they’re also mostly free of the bloated language and conventions that put so many readers off old fiction.

1. The Lamplighter, 1854

Genre: Chick-Lit Romance

If you’re in the mood for pure heart rending/warming sentiment, meet little Gertie Flint. She’s a poor orphan, mistreated by the world, until she is rescued by a kindly lamplighter. His fatherly love changes the course of her life. The rest of Maria Susanna Cummins’ bestselling novel is a chance for Gertie to show us how bright, hard-working, and good a young woman can be; and the sweet romantic rewards that await a girl of such virtue.

2. The Hannay Series, 1915

Genre: Espionage Thrillers

You’ve probably heard of the movie(s) The Thirty-nine Steps, as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock were two of many talented people who’ve brought versions of it to radio and screen. What you may not have known is that it is the first book in a five book series of thrillers staring the intrepid Richard Hannay, solider and spy of The Great War. The books were written by Scottish novelist (and Baron, Elected Member of Parliament, and Governor General of Canada) John Buchan. They chronicle Hannay’s life of adventure and espionage throughout WWI, as well as much mystery-solving after it.

3. The Marriage of William Ashe, 1905

Genre: Scandal and Romance

William Ashe, the dashing Earl and successful politician, is enchanted with the beauty and charm of 18-year-old Lady Kitty. He proposes after only knowing her three weeks, and is too infatuated with her to take note of all the gossip regarding her character. What could possibly go wrong? Enter a lover or two, some unladylike behavior, a desperate episode of grief, some very wrong choices, and you have yourself a spellbinding beach read by Mrs. Humphrey Ward.

4. Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective, 1914

Genre: Ladies Solving Crimes

Long before spunky modern heroines began solving mysteries with their cats and knitting societies, even before Miss Marple tottered onto the scene, there was Miss Madelyn Mack. She and her trusty companion, reporter Nora Noraker, take on five mysteries in the book, which reads surprisingly non-sexist for the day (and they were written by a man, Hugh Cosgro Weir). Miss Mack believes that a woman’s observant character makes her a better mystery solver than a man. It’s a bit of a Sherlock Holmes rip-off, to be sure, but then again what mystery solving duo isn’t?

5. Carmilla: a Vampyre Tale, 1872

Genre: Vampires

Predating Dracula by about 25 years, Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is the story of a lonely girl named Laura who lives in her father’s lonely European castle. One day a carriage rolls out of the mist, and an anxious lady begs to leave her ill daughter with Laura while she tends to a far-away emergency. This girl is Carmilla, and soon she and Laura have formed an intense friendship. Carmilla has peculiar ways, and an undefinable sickness. Not surprising, since people all over town seem to be dying of some strange illness. I bet you can guess what it is. But in 1872, it would have been quite a shock.

6. You Know Me, Al, 1914

Genre: Humor

Firstly, finding any unique humor from the 19th and early 20th centuries is difficult. You can basically choose from the rambling knee slappers of Mark Twain, or the jaunty verbal gymnastics that come from Jerome K. Jerome and the future members of the Algonquin Round Table. But You Know Me, Al, written by sportswriter Ring Lardner, reads altogether different. It’s a series of letters written to “Al” (in a vernacular that is nearly recognizable English) by Jack Keefe, a remarkably dumb and narcissistic baseball player who continually sabotages or lets others sabotage his journey to and from fame. Throw in some disastrous dames and a coupla no good scoundrels all filtered through Jack’s amazing doltishness, and you’ve found yourself an easy fun time there, pal.

Bonus: 50 Shades of Goodness Gracious!

Erotica has been publicized for as long as man could transfer thought to page or stone. The erotic novel, as we know it today, (slightly more lady-friendly and plot heavy than average pornography) began in the 18th century with the publication of The Memoirs of Fanny Hill. The art form progressed, and by the end of the 19th century readers were enjoying such discreetly wrapped and erotic titles as Lady Bumtickler's Revels, The Autobiography of a Flea, and Venus in India. All books are available on Kindle for remarkably reasonable prices, and will be sure to add a little ribaldry to your summer.   

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Dedicated Middle School Teacher Transforms His Classroom Into Hogwarts
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Kyle Ely

It would be hard to dread back-to-school season with Kyle Ely as your teacher. As ABC News reports, the instructor brought a piece of Hogwarts to Evergreen Middle School in Hillsboro, Oregon by plastering his classroom with Harry Potter-themed decor.

The journey into the school's makeshift wizarding world started at his door, which was decorated with red brick wall paper and a "Platform 9 3/4" sign above the entrance. Inside, students found a convincing Hogwarts classroom complete with floating candles, a sorting hat, owl statues, and house crests. He even managed to recreate the starry night sky effect of the school’s Great Hall by covering the ceiling with black garbage bags and splattering them with white paint.

The whole project cost the teacher around $300 to $400 and took him 70 hours to build. As a long-time Harry Potter fan, he said that being able to share his love of the book series with his students made it all pay off it. He wrote in a Facebook post, "Seeing their faces light up made all the time and effort put into this totally worth it."

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Inside of Harry Potter-themed classroom.

Though wildly creative, the Hogwarts-themed classroom at Evergreen Middle School isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2015, a middle school teacher in Oklahoma City outfitted her classroom with a potions station and a stuffed version of Fluffy to make the new school year a little more magical. Here are some more unique classroom themes teachers have used to transport their kids without leaving school.

[h/t ABC News]

Images courtesy of Kyle Ely.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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