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9 Ways The Art of War Conquered the World

Image credit: A bamboo copy of The Art of War, housed at the University of California, Riverside, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is perhaps the most influential treatise on leadership and war ever written. Everyone from New England Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick to Tupac Shakur has supposedly read the 2500-year-old text’s 13 chapters on the 13 aspects of warfare. (Even Paris Hilton knows a smart photo-op when she sees one.) But how much do you really know about this frequently name-checked text?

1. SUN TZU MIGHT NOT HAVE ACTUALLY WRITTEN THE ART OF WAR.

The Art of War is the oldest surviving manuscript on military tactics from Ancient China’s hallowed martial tradition, reportedly written in the 4th or 5th century BCE by Chinese general Sun Tzu (also known as Sunzi or “Master Sun”). But the historical figure Sun Tzu was probably not the actual author of the work (if he existed at all), which may have been a compilation of “greatest hits” from Chinese military theorists, written on sewn-together bamboo slips a few centuries after his death.

According to later biographers, Sun Tzu was born during the violent Spring and Autumn period of China, in either Qi or Wu, depending on the source, and grew up to become General of the Wu army. The success of The Art of War is only partially due to its advice; the rest can be attributed to the legend cultivated around the man who supposedly wrote it.

2. BUT HE WAS KNOWN FOR HIS RUTHLESSNESS.

Sima Qian, a biographer writing in roughly the second century BCE, proved Sun Tzu’s fitness for doling out military advice by claiming that the general defeated an army 10 times the size of his own at the Battle of Boju. Sima Qian did a lot to cement Sun Tzu’s reputation for refuse-to-blink ruthlessness and, by extension, the reputation of the text.

One episode in particular stands out: According to Sima Qian, the King of Wu told Sun Tzu that he’d read the treatise and wanted to put Sun Tzu’s theories to a test. The King asked whether his advice for managing soldiers could also be applied to women; Sun Tzu replied in the affirmative. To prove this, 180 courtesans were brought out to the courtyard and divided into two companies. With the King’s two favorite concubines at their heads, all of the women were given spears.

Sun Tzu began to give the women basic military commands—turn left, turn right, etc.—but was initially met with giggles. “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame,” he said. He tried again; more giggles. “But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officer.” As punishment, Sun Tzu ordered that the two company leaders be beheaded on the spot, in front of the King and their horrified “soldiers.” New women were forced to take their places; the next time the companies were given a command, they performed it with terrified precision.

3. THE ART OF WAR IS AS MUCH ABOUT NOT GOING TO WAR AS IT IS ABOUT WAR.

Despite stories like that, the treatise is equally concerned with nonviolent strategy: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” it declares. Sun Tzu—or whoever—appears to regard war as a necessary, but wasteful, evil, and one to be avoided whenever possible. This would make sense: At the time of the book’s writing, China was in the grips of a thousand-year period of near-unrelenting conflict between its seven main vassal states. The era’s military leaders would have been all too familiar with the real cost of battle and would have been keen to avoid it.

4. THE TEXT WAS BROUGHT TO EUROPE BY A MISSIONARY.

The treatise remained an important and popular text in Chinese tradition, and through centuries of dynastic, imperial rule, its fame spread across Asia to Japan and beyond. Still, it remained largely unknown in the Western world until 1772, when it was “discovered” by a Jesuit missionary and translated into French. Supposedly, Napoleon himself was one of the text’s first European devotees. The Art of War wasn’t translated into English until 1905, but it’s been a steadfast bestseller ever since.

5. TONY SOPRANO AND PETYR BAELISH HAVE HELPED BOOST SALES.

In an April 2001 episode of The Sopranos, Tony told his therapist that he’d been reading The Art of War—a useful choice for the embattled fictional mob boss. Sales of the book immediately skyrocketed, and by the end of the month, Oxford University Press had gone through its entire stock of 14,000 copies. Company executives wasted no time capitalizing on the free publicity; they ordered 25,000 more copies and even took out a small ad in The New York Times. (The copy read, “Tony Soprano fears no enemy. Sun Tzu taught him how. The Art of War. The book for bosses.”) Today, the book remains hugely popular—it’s currently ranked #1 in both Military Sciences and History of Education on Amazon. And a new spin on the book's audio version—read by Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen (a.k.a. Littlefinger)—landed in the Top 20 on Audible.com’s list of bestsellers.

6. THE ART OF WAR WENT TO WAR.

Between 1943 and 1946, the Council on Books in Wartime—a non-profit group comprised of book sellers, publishers, librarians, and writers—began publishing cheap, pocket-sized editions of popular and classic books for soldiers serving in World War II. Working under the publishing name Armed Services Editions, it adopted the slogan “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” The group managed to put almost 123 million copies of 1,322 titles into the hands of the troops. Titles sent overseas included Bram Stoker’s Dracula; The Art of Illusion, a 1944 book of magic tricks; Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; and James Thurber and E.B. White’s Is Sex Necessary? (Which probably wasn’t the most sensitive choice for men and women serving thousands of miles away from their loved ones.)

In 2002, a writer and collector of ASE copies named Andrew Carroll revived the program for American troops serving overseas; The Art of War was selected as one of four books printed and sent abroad. Its companions: War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Carroll), American Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present, by Allan Mikaelian, and Shakespeare’s Henry V.

7. CORPORATE LEADERS LOVE IT ...

Japan has had a long love affair with Sun Tzu, dating back to at least the 8th century AD, when the first Japanese translation of the text appeared. (There’s even a statue of Sun Tzu in tiny Yurihama, Tottori, Japan.) In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, Japanese businessmen began applying Sun Tzu’s teachings to the country’s burgeoning corporate culture, with real results. Wall Street, both in awe of and unnerved by Japan’s growing business acumen, caught on in the late ‘80s, prompting a flurry of books and think-pieces intended to adapt the book’s words of advice for a more material world. (Gordon Gecko, the principal villain of 1987’s Wall Street, can quote Sun Tzu.) The text has since been repackaged for business audiences in dozens of books and articles (like this one and this one), and has even been “re-interpreted” for lady bosses in The Art of War for Women. Because it’s hard for us ladies to read anything that doesn't have “for women” in the title.

8. ... BUT IT GOES IGNORED BY CHINESE BUSINESS STUDENTS.

Despite the fact that it is one of the pillars of Chinese military theory, Western business tradition has largely replaced The Art of War in Chinese business schools, according to a blog for the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business. “The Chinese are so taken by Western knowledge that they have been blinded to their own history,” Shalom Saada Saar, a lecturer at Cheung Kong, told the blog. “I do believe they have it right here, but they’re not looking.”

9. IT’S NOW A STAPLE IN THE SELF-HELP SECTION.

In the immortal words of Pat Benatar, “Love is a battlefield.” So it should come as no surprise that titles like the sinister-sounding The Art of War for Dating: Master Sun Tzu's Tactics to Win Over Women exist. (It promises to help the hapless male reader “win the battle of the sexes.”) There’s also the slightly-less-evil-sounding The Art of Love: Sun Tzu's The Art of War for Romantic Relationships, which features excerpts from the The Art of War alongside relevant pieces of love advice. The author of The Art of Love, Gary Gagliardi, has mined The Art of War to produce a truly staggering number of works, including (but not limited to) The Art of Parenting: Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Parenting Teens, which sounds useful, and The Art of War on Terror: Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Countering Terrorism, which sounds suspiciously like The Art of Parenting.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.

1. THE "PRIVATE CASE" // THE BRITISH LIBRARY

At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.

2. L’ENFER // BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE

General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.

3. TRIPLE-STAR COLLECTION // NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.

4. PHI COLLECTION // OXFORD'S BODLEIAN LIBRARY

Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.

5. "XR" COLLECTION // HARVARD’S WIDENER LIBRARY

 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”

6. THE ARC // CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
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As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.

BONUS: "INFERNO" // THE VATICAN LIBRARY

The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

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