Chet Van Duzer
Chet Van Duzer

When Ancient Texts Vanish, Scientists Can Make Them Reappear

Chet Van Duzer
Chet Van Duzer

To Gregory Heyworth’s naked eye, the coat of arms was nothing more than a smudge. The emblem appeared on the bottom of the epic 14th-century French poem Les Eschez d’Amours; if it could be read, it would reveal to the medieval scholar which family had originally owned it. A firebombing in Dresden during World War II had marred its inscriptions, turning its provenance into a mystery.

“It looked,” he tells mental_floss, “like pigeon poop.”

Heyworth, an associate professor of English at the University of Mississippi, hoped that ultraviolet light might reveal more than what his eye could see. In 2005, he started examining the document with it—but unfortunately, the view didn't improve. So after years of frustrating work, he jumped online and dug up details of the Archimedes Palimpsest, a bundle of 10th century documents that had been erased by a monk so its parchment paper could be reused to write prayers. Imaging scientists had been successful in excavating the “lost” text from the Palimpsest. He wondered if they could do the same for the poem.

In 2010, Heyworth met with Roger L. Easton, Jr., chair of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)'s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science. Easton had been working on new ways to image and decipher decaying manuscripts since the 1990s. At that point, X-rays (which can identify the iron in certain inks) and ultraviolet light had been in use for decades, but their reach was limited. There are hundreds of pigments, all of them responsive to different wavelengths. To properly exhaust most possibilities, there needed to be more options.

The result of Easton's work was an arsenal of multispectral imaging hardware and software—photographic and analytical techniques that could take faded or erased text and, by reflecting different bands of light, make them visible to the eye for the first time in centuries. A very deliberate, sometimes exhausting practice, multispectral imaging is reviving vanished text and helping historians rewrite world history—a revolutionary new field blending science with the humanities.

Using Easton's equipment, the two photographed Les Eschez d’Amours across a dozen wavelengths, each harboring the possibility of lighting up the pigments on the document. The images were loaded into processing software to further sharpen, enhance, and contrast. And there, viewable for the first time in hundreds of years, was the coat of arms: a unicorn and shield. Within two hours, Heyworth discovered that it was the von Waldenfel family of Bavaria, Germany, that had possession of the document prior to its known whereabouts in the 17th century. It was one missing piece of the poem's chain of ownership.

Les Eschez d'Amours is just one of many documents that can benefit from this process, potentially revealing more than we've ever known about civilization. The downside? There's currently a serious deficit of trained specialists, equipment, and money. "We have a minimum 60,000 manuscripts in Europe alone to image,” Heyworth says, noting that he has the only traveling multispectral system available. “It is, to me, a state of urgency. There is a real danger of some being lost forever.”

A page of the Archimedes Palimpsest, both visible to the eye (L) and after being processed as a multispectral image to reveal "overwritten," hidden text (R). Image Credit:

Though it's been refined significantly in the past decade, multispectral imaging isn't an entirely new development. In 1996, Easton and colleague Keith Knox had successfully enhanced faded text from the Dead Sea Scrolls using filtered lenses on a Kodak camera, a process originally developed by the late archeologist Robert Johnston. Easton’s eureka moment came as the team removed two colors of the RGB (red, green, blue) model present in the visible spectrum from the digital image.

“We subtracted pairs of these bands,” he says. “In one of the subtractions, we were able to see some poor-quality, fuzzy characters. I suggested we compare those to the original color image. Upon doing so, we realized that we had not noticed those characters in the original. These characters were new.”

The handwriting had become visible. Later, Easton would introduce multiple wavelengths ranging from ultraviolet to infrared, capturing images as they reacted to a dozen different bands of light.  

“One way to think of it is like the black light you see on crime shows,” says Kevin Sacca, a senior undergraduate student who works with Easton analyzing images at RIT. “The pigment has different spectral properties that can absorb, reflect, or transmit light depending on the wavelength.” Hitting the right combination of light and pigment is like having the tumbler in a lock click into place: It can make invisible text glow with new legibility.   

When the Archimedes Palimpsest was rediscovered in the late 1990s, Easton saw an opportunity to put his techniques to a considerable test. Archimedes was a mathematician born in 287 BCE who had his elaborate formulas copied on dried animal skin known as parchment. In the 13th century, a monk had used an abrasive liquid—likely orange juice—to scrape off the ink describing Archimedes’ work. (At the time, parchment was difficult to find and often reused.) This recycling is known as palimpsesting. In this case, the monk took seven of Archimedes’ scrubbed manuscripts, tied them together, and used them as a canvas for his own writing.

“Archie,” as the book is known to scholars, started out in rough shape and spent the next 700 years getting worse. Mold, age, and some ill-advised glue had all conspired to create a book that looked to be on the verge of crumbling. Imaging would not only provide a possible key to unlock the text, but a way of preserving it for future researchers to examine.

Though it had been photographed before Easton’s digital excavation in the 2000s, the scientist used multiple bands of light to create the best opportunity for the “undertext,” or the remains of the erased pigment, to be seen. A cell phone camera, for example, might take a picture in the three RGB bands visible to the eye; Easton photographed in a dozen bands, then blended the layers to form multispectral images. From there, the files would be examined in a software program called ENVI that can work to bring out faded or obscured writing by utilizing the different wavelength-specific bands used during photography and manipulating pixels for contrast.  

“The chances are, the ink written over it is different from the ink below,” Sacca says. “The spectral properties will be different, and we can separate them.”

The initial approach was to blend the overtext, or the monk’s writing, together with the parchment to isolate the undertext. But it was too blurry—and if the overtext was written directly over the faded ink, it would all disappear. Instead, Easton essentially turned the pages into three distinct layers, “lifting” the undertext off, using ENVI to sharpen and darken the text for visibility, and sending the results to scholars. Figuring out which wavelength the pigment responds to can take days. Since ink and damage can vary even on the same page, the process has to be repeated constantly; ENVI can take hours to run a single software process on an image, whether it's a whole page or just a portion.

A page of the monk's work in normal light (L), imaged (M), and with the undertext made visible (R). The hidden text was written vertically on the page. Image Credit: RIT/Center for Imaging Science.

The results, however, were nothing short of stunning. Archimedes, it turns out, was on his way to discovering calculus and was pondering the concept of infinity well over a thousand years before scholars believed anyone had. The discoveries that trickled out beginning in 2000 essentially rewrote what historians had believed about math.

After much of the Archimedes work had been completed—some passages that had been painted over and resisted all attempts under multispectral responded to a Stanford X-ray examination—Easton began helping Heyworth with his studies in 2010. Heyworth’s model for a portable imaging system, a key part of what he dubbed the Lazarus Project, would bring Easton’s abilities to a wider audience. They’d also entertain proposals from scholars eager to unlock the hidden knowledge of their own work. A request to examine some charred pages written by William Faulkner revealed never-before-seen poetry; the Library of Congress employed similar techniques to discover that Thomas Jefferson had erased “subjects” and written “citizens” in the Declaration of Independence.

While manuscripts were a foremost consideration, one historian was intrigued by a map likely used by Christopher Columbus that was slowly being lost to time. Easton had performed his document archaeology for manuscripts. Could he do the same for a massive canvas rendered in multiple kinds of paint?

A segment of the Martellus map before processing, viewed under an (unsuccessful) wavelength, and finally showing the faded text. Image Credit: courtesy of Chet Van Duzer.

The Martellus map warned of monsters. Four feet high by 6 feet long, the geographical guide was crafted by cartographer Henricus Martellus in 1491. Scholars believe it almost certainly informed Christopher Columbus about the shape of Asia and the (erroneous) location of Japan before he set about discovering the New World. It had fascinated scholar Chet Van Duzer ever since he had first seen images of the map taken under ultraviolet in the 1960s. The light had illuminated spores of ink.

“It proved there was text on the map,” he says. “But you couldn’t see most of it.”

Van Duzer reached out to Heyworth and Easton in 2012, who were collaborating to steer the Lazarus Project into new directions. Heyworth knew that many universities didn’t have the finances to install expensive imaging rooms with just a handful of historical documents, making his portable equipment (which was provided free of charge) attractive. 

The three would eventually sit on the Lazarus Project's board; for now, Van Duzer was explaining how badly he wanted to resurrect Martellus’ old legends.

In August 2014, team members traveled to Yale University, where the map is kept in the school’s library behind a protective enclosure. Their in-house archivists freed it from the wall and balanced it on an easel. (The map had been backed to help preserve it.) Easton used a quartz lens made by MegaVision to take 50-megapixel images of overlapping sections—55 in all—while an LED light source loomed over the canvas. Because the map’s surface is uneven and painted, varying the distance to the stationary lens, Easton had to refocus the camera as they made their way across. 

That fall, Easton and Sacca worked in Rochester to pull the faded text from the map, sending digital files to Van Duzer in California to translate Martellus’ Latin. Sometimes words would trail off, leaving him to infer meaning; other times, he’d squint and try to decide whether he was seeing a “V” or “LI.”

Courtesy of Chet Van Duzer.

Like a developing negative in a dark room, the words of Martellus slowly appeared. He warned of sea dangers, and how some cultures fished for sharks. "A sea monster that is like the sun when it shines,” he wrote of the orca, “whose form can hardly be described, except that its skin is soft and its body huge."

Text in specific regions told Van Duzer which sources Martellus had used. Citing the work of Marco Polo, for example, came from one of the early manuscripts and not a published edition. (Details can vary between the two.)

“We know almost nothing about Martellus,” Van Duzer says, “so whenever we can generate or verify his sources, it’s exciting.” Martellus was himself a source for later mapmakers like Martin Waldseemuller, the first cartographer to name America. Knowing how Martellus crafted his topography would increase our understanding of how other important maps were created.

Because of Van Duzer’s knowledge of the map, he was able to request Easton and Sacca focus on specific areas. “He’d email and say, ‘Can you check there? I think there’s text but I can’t see it,’” Sacca says. “I spent four or five days running data on that one area. Sometimes you get single words, sometimes entire paragraphs.”

The Martellus map, Sacca says, is mostly imaged, with roughly 90 percent of the faded text now visible. Other technicians could go over it and possibly find data he’s missed, but that requires time and resources RIT doesn’t have. Despite pleas from many scholars and universities to examine their holdings, Easton only has two students working full-time to unravel documents.

“People will ask me to image their grandfather’s diary,” Sacca says. They don't realize the thousands of documents already in the queue, or that there’s only so much expertise to go around.

An overwritten illustration of a 5th century medicinal herb becomes wholly visible after being imaged.

At any given time, Easton, Heyworth, and other advocates for the burgeoning field of textual science are traveling the world. Part of their mission is to image delicate relics that their owners wouldn’t dare think of transporting. (RIT is currently assisting in imaging the library at St. Catherine’s Monastery, home to thousands of ancient folios written in 11 languages and left behind by visiting monks as far back as the 4th century.) Another is to train students and other scholars how to use the technology so more manuscripts can be preserved and better understood.

“These students are the ones who will be doing the real work that will follow up on our efforts,” Easton says. “It is only by collaborations by people whose loyalties are to the objects and not to personal recognition or financial gain can the need be addressed.”

The rising tide of skilled image specialists face a danger beyond decaying pages: In 2012, Islamist extremists attacked one of the famed libraries of Timbuktu and burned its books. Fortunately, scholars had switched out their rare manuscripts, preserving the African writings, which date from the 10th century to 14th century.

“It’s the only record of scholarship of the continent from that period,” Heyworth says. “They’re endangered objects.” 

The more work that can be done, the more documents can be excavated, making interest in the field as much of a priority as imaging itself. Heyworth recalls a day not long ago when he invited a first-year student to sit down and interact with the ENVI software. A page from an ancient Vatican manuscript was onscreen. With a few mouse strokes, the text revealed underwriting. The student began to read the Greek out loud. 

"It was the first time anyone had heard that in over a thousand years," Heyworth says. "That moment made him a scholar. I want other people to have that experience.”

Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.
25 Amazing Books by African-American Writers You Need to Read
Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.
Background: iStock. Book Covers for "Invisible Man" and "The Underground Railroad": Amazon. Book Cover for "The Hate U Give": HARPERCOLLINS.

Black History Month gives us 28 days to honor African Americans and the ever-expanding contributions they make to culture. Literature in particular has been a space for black authors to tell their stories authentically, and bookworms seeking good reads can choose from an array of fiction, poetry, historical texts, essays, and memoirs. From literary icons to fresh, buzzworthy talent, we're highlighting 25 books by African-American authors you should add to your reading list today.


Kindred by Octavia Butler
Background: iStock. Book cover: Amazon.

Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) is one of a string of novels she penned centering black female protagonists, which was unprecedented in a white-male dominated science and speculative fiction space. This story centers Dana, a young writer in 1970s Los Angeles, who is unexpectedly whisked away to the 19th century antebellum South where she saves the life of Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation owner. When Dana’s white husband—initially suspicious of her claims—is transported back in time with her, complicated circumstances follow since interracial marriage was considered illegal in America until 1967. To paint an accurate picture of the slavery era, Butler told In Motion Magazine in 2004, she studied slave narratives and books by the wives of plantation owners.


Hunger by Roxane Gay
Background: iStock. Book cover: Amazon.

In the second entry of her divulging 2017 memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay reveals, "… this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood."  The New York Times best-selling author pinpoints deep-seated emotions from a string of experiences, such as an anxious visit to a doctor's office concerning gastric bypass surgery and turning to food to cope with a boy raping her when she was a girl. In six powerful parts, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and National Book Award finalist reclaims the space necessary to document her truth—and uses that space to come out of the shadows she had once intentionally tried to hide in.


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Background: iStock. Book cover: Amazon.

James Baldwin is a key figure among the great thinkers of the 20th century for his long range of criticism about literature, film, and culture and his revelations on race in America. One of his most widely known literary contributions was his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a text featuring two essays: one a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, in which he encourages him not to give in to racist ideas that blackness makes him lesser. The second essay, "Down At The Cross," takes the reader back to Baldwin's childhood in Harlem as he details conditions of poverty, his struggle with religious authorities, and his relationship with his father.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Penguin Random House.

After re-reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write a book-long essay to his teenage son about being black in America and forewarns him of the plight that comes with facing white supremacy. The result was the 2015 National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. New York magazine reported that after reading it, Toni Morrison wrote, "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." Throughout the book, Coates recounts witnessing violence in "the streets" and police brutality growing up in Baltimore, reflects on his time studying at historically black Howard University, and asks the hard questions about the past and future of race in America.


Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic Invisible Man follows one African-American man's quest for identity during the 1920s and 1930s—and decades later, this is a struggle that many continue to encounter. Because of racism, the unnamed protagonist, known as "Invisible Man," does not feel seen by society and narrates the reader through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events to fit in while living in the South and later in Harlem, New York City. In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award, making Ellison the first African-American author to receive the prestigious honor for fiction [PDF].


Beloved by Toni Morrison
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved puts Sethe, a former slave in 1873 Cincinnati, Ohio, in contact with the supernatural. Before becoming a freed woman, Sethe attempted to kill her children to save them from a life of enslavement. While her sons and one daughter survived, her infant daughter, "Beloved," died. Sethe's family becomes haunted by a spirit believed to be Beloved, and Morrison provides a layered portrayal of the plight of post-slavery black life with a magical surrealism edge as Sethe learns she must confront her repressed memories of trauma and her past life in bondage.


All About Love: New Visions by bell hooks
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Goodreads.

In the 2000 book All About Love, feminist scholar Bell Hooks grapples with how people are commonly socialized to perceive love in modern society. She uses a range of examples to delve into the topic, from her personal childhood and dating reflections to popular culture references. This is a powerful, essential text that calls on humans to revise a new, healthier blueprint for love, free of patriarchal gender limitations and dominating behaviors that don't serve humankind's emotional needs.


The Autobiography of Malcom X
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

In 1963, Malcolm X would drive from his home in Harlem to author Alex Haley's apartment down in New York's Greenwich Village to collaborate on his autobiography. Unfortunately, the minister and activist didn't live to see it in print—The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, not long after his assassination in February of that year. The books chronicles the many lessons the young Malcolm (born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska) learned from witnessing his parents' struggles with racism during his childhood; to his troubled young adulthood with drugs and incarceration; and his later evolution into one of the most iconic voices in the movement for black liberation.


Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Harper Perennial.

During Zora Neale Hurston's career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937's Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy and brings to light Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black southern dialect in the characters' dialogue, to proudly represent their voices and manner.


The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

The Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries were intended to marginalize black Americans who, during the Reconstruction period, were establishing their own businesses, entering the labor system, and running for office. Although a series of anti-discrimination rulings, such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act, were passed during the Civil Rights Movement, Michelle Alexander's 2010 book argues that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow impacting black American lives, especially black men. In the text, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, piloted by the Ronald Reagan administration, created a system in which black Americans were stripped of their rights after serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.


Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Penguin Random House.

Originally published in 1984, Sister Outsider is an anthology of 15 essays and speeches written by lesbian feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde. The titles of her works are as intriguing as the content is eye-opening. For example: "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" examines the way people, especially women, lose when they block the erotic—or deep passion—from their work and while exploring their spiritual and political desires. In "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," Lorde explains how feminism fails by leaving out the voices of black women, queer women, and poor women—which are ideas that are still shaping conversations within feminism today.


The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Canongate Books

Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope was his second book and the No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it was released in the fall of 2006. The title was derived from a sermon he heard by Pastor Jeremiah Wright called "The Audacity to Hope." It was also the title of the keynote speech the then-Illinois State Senator gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Before becoming the 44th president of the United States, Obama's Audacity of Hope outlined his optimistic vision to bridge political parties so that the government could better serve the American people's needs.


The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Penguin Random House.

During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, documented these movements in her 2010 book, which involved 15 years of research and interviews with 1200 people. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson's excellent and in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Penguin Random House.

Jacqueline Woodson's children's books and YA novels are inspired by her desire to highlight the lives of communities of color—narratives she felt were missing from the literature landscape. In her 2014 National Book Award-winning autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses her own childhood story in verse form, to fill those representation voids. The author came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and subsequently the Black Power Movement, and lived between the laid-back lifestyle of South Carolina and the fast-paced New York City. Through her work, we are reminded of how family and community play a role in helping individuals persevere through life's trials.


Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

Janet Mock, an African-American and Hawaiian transgender activist and writer, began her career in media as a staff editor at People. In 2011, Mock decided to share her story with the world and came out as a transgender woman in a Marie Claire article, and after landing a book deal, she released this New York Times bestselling memoir in 2014. Mock used her platform to speak in full about her upbringing as a young girl of color in poverty and identifying as transgender—a courageous move that set her on a path to being an inspiring voice for those facing difficulty in accepting their identity.


Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In his 2014 memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens up about growing up in a segregated Louisiana town during the 1970s as the youngest of five brothers. In 12 chapters, Blow offers an extensive look at his path to overcoming the odds of poverty, the trauma of being a victim of childhood rape, and his gradual understanding of his bi-sexuality. Although these are hard truths to tell, Blow told NPR in 2014, he wrote this book especially for those who are going through similar experiences and need to know their lives are still worth living, despite their painful circumstances.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

If you read anything by the late, great, prophetic poet Maya Angelou, her 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be at the top of your list: It provides an in-depth look at the obstacles that shaped her early life. Angelou's childhood and teenage years were nomadic, as her separated parents moved her and her brother from rural Arkansas to St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually to California, where at different times she lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. Besides the blatant racism she saw unfold around her in the South, a young Maya also faced childhood rape, and as a teen, homelessness and pregnancy. Angelou, who was at first reluctant to write the book, achieved much success with the text as she became the first African-American woman to have a non-fiction bestseller.


Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

In 2015, Samuel R. Delany told The Nation that when he first began attending science fiction conferences in the 1960s, he was one of only a few black writers and enthusiasts present. Over the years, with his contributions and the work of others like Octavia Butler, whom he mentored, he opened doors for black writers in the genre. If you're looking for a sci-fi thriller taking place in space and centering a woman leader protagonist, Delany's 1967 Nebula Award-winning Babel-17 is the one. Rydra Wong, a spaceship captain, is intrigued by a mysterious language called Babel-17 that has the power to alter a person's perception of themselves and others, and possibly brainwash her to betray her government.


Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey
Background: iStock. Book Cover: New Directions Publishing.

Readers of Nathaniel Mackey's poetry are often intrigued by his ability to merge the worlds of music (particularly jazz) and poetry to create soul-grabbing rhythmic prose. Splay Anthem is a masterful work exhibiting his style, and the 2006 collection includes two poems Mackey had been writing for more than 20 years: "Song of the Andoumboulou," a ritual funeral song from the Dogon people of modern-day Mali; and "Mu." Splay Anthem is woven into three sections, "Braid," "Fray," and "Nub," in which two characters travel through space and time and whose final destinations are unclear. Mackey's nonlinear form is deliberate: "There's a lot of emphasis on movement in the poems, and there's a lot of questions about ultimate arrival, about whether there is such a state or place," he said in an excerpt from A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area.


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Background: iStock. Book Cover: HarperCollins.

Angie Thomas is part of a new crop of African-American authors bringing fresh new storytelling to bookshelves near you. Her 2017 debut young adult novel, The Hate U Give, was inspired by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who has witnessed the police-involved shooting of her best friend Khalil. The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller chart, is a timely fictional tale which humanizes the voices behind one of the largest movements in present times.


Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Penguin Random House.

Take it back to where Harlem Renaissance legend Langston Hughes began his novelistic bibliography. In 1930's Not Without Laughter, Sandy Rogers is an African-American boy growing up in Kansas during the early 1900s—a story loosely based on Hughes's own experiences living in Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. Hughes vividly paints his characters based on the "typical Negro family in the Middle West" he grew up around, he explained in his autobiography The Big Sea. In this way, Hughes paved the way for more storytelling about black life outside of urban, big city settings.


Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

Jesmyn Ward's 2011 novel Salvage the Bones merges fiction with her real life experience surviving Hurricane Katrina as a native of a rural Mississippi town. Ward tells a new story through the eyes of Esch, a pregnant teenage girl who lives in poverty with her three brothers and a father who is battling alcoholism, in a fictional town called Bois Sauvage. Through this National Book Award-winning tale, Ward writes an emotionally intense and deep account about a family who must find a way to overcome differences and stick together to survive the passing storm.


Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

Don’t Call Us Dead is a cathartic series of poems that imagine an afterlife where black men can fully be themselves. Danez Smith's poignant words take heartbreaking imagery of violence upon the bodies of black men, and juxtapose them with scenes of a new plane, one that is much better than the existence they lived before. Upon arrival, it's a celebration, as men and boys are embraced by their fellow brothers and are able to truly experience being "alive." Smith's prose sticks, and you will think more deeply about the delicacy of life and death, long after you've put the book back on the shelf.


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

Colson Whitehead brings a bit of fantasy to historical fiction in his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. Historically, the underground railroad was a network of safe houses for runaways on their journey to reaching the freed states. But Whitehead invents a literal secret underground railroad with real tracks and trains in his novel. This system takes his main character, Cora, a woman who escaped a Georgia plantation, to different states and stops. Along her journey, she faces a new set of horrific hurdles that could hold her back from obtaining freedom.


Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Background: iStock. Book Cover: Amazon.

If you're into mystery but don't know Walter Mosley, it's time to catch up. The crime-fiction author has published more than 40 books, with his Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins series being his most popular. Mosley's 1990 debut (and Easy's debut as well) Devil in a Blue Dress takes the reader to 1940s Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood where we are first introduced to Easy, who has recently relocated to the City of Angels after losing his job in Houston. He finds a new line of work as a detective when a man at a bar wants him to track down a woman named Daphne Monet.

Universal Studios
7 Fascinating Details We Learned From Classic Movie Novelizations
Universal Studios
Universal Studios

Before the rise of on-demand entertainment sources, fans who fell in love with movies didn’t have many options beyond waiting for a theatrical re-release or home video rental. Revisiting Star Wars or King Kong instead meant picking up a novelization, a book-length prose adaptation that often expanded or added to a film’s plot.

Working from early drafts of a script sometimes meant that the writers assigned to these projects referenced details that weren’t present in the finished film. These facts can range from minor (Indiana Jones’s crushing student in Raiders of the Lost Ark may have been more of a stalker) to major (the Gremlins novelization depicts Mogwais as aliens from another planet). Check out seven of the more intriguing reveals found in the paperback versions of classic films.


Steven Spielberg had enjoyed William Kotzwinkle’s 1974 novel The Fan Man so much that he invited Kotzwinkle to take on a plum assignment: novelizing the director’s big 1982 release, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Although Kotzwinkle stuck to the film’s fish-out-of-water clothesline and the friendship between the titular alien and human friend Elliott, he took some time to delve deeper into the accordion-necked creature’s proclivities—specifically, the idea that E.T. was not quite the asexual being portrayed in the film.

In the novel, E.T. is depicted as having a crush on Mary, Elliott’s (single) mother. After musing that it was unfortunate Mary was showing signs of being lonely, E.T.

"…crept down the hall to Mary's room and peeked in. The willow-creature was asleep, and he watched her for a long time. She was a goddess, the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. … Mary, said his old heart. Then upon paddle feet, he tiptoed over to her bed and gazed more closely.”

Perhaps watching someone while they sleep is considered acceptable on E.T.’s home planet. In any event, neither the prose version of Mary nor her onscreen incarnation (played by Dee Wallace) acknowledged that E.T. wanted to swipe right.


Karen Allen and Paul Freeman in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Lucasfilm Ltd.

In the opening sequence of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, we learn that two-fisted archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) will go to considerable lengths to acquire rare and valuable artifacts. We also discover that his archrival, René Belloq, will go a step further in seizing them. Belloq meets a satisfying, face-melting end during the movie’s climax, but viewers never learn that he and Indy had problems going back to graduate school. In Campbell Black’s novelization, it’s revealed that the two were classmates who drifted apart when Belloq plagiarized one of Indy’s essays. (The book also mentions that Indy’s love interest, Marion Ravenwood, was only 15 when Professor Jones seduced her, a fact best left on the cutting room floor.)


In Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of 1979’s Alien, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is shown to be at odds with android Ash (Ian Holm) for his duplicitous behavior. Conversing with his decapitated head, Ripley discovers that Ash knows more about the Xenomorph terrorizing the crew of the Nostromo than he had let on. Near death, Ash hints that the alien might be intelligent and that she should try to communicate with it.

“Did you?” she asks.

“Please let my grave hold some secrets,” Ash replies.

Onscreen, the creature seemed less interested in interacting with humans and more preoccupied with treating them like incubators. In fairness, signs of intelligent life were hard to come by in that universe following 1986's Aliens.


Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV (1985)
MGM Home Entertainment

After watching his friend Apollo Creed get pummeled to death without doing anything to stop it, a penitent Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) travels to Russia to get revenge in 1985’s Rocky IV. The film makes it clear that Balboa’s bout with steroided Soviet hulk Ivan Drago is personal: He declares he’s not being paid for the match and will do it over the Christmas holiday, leaving his skittish wife and son to wonder if Rocky will be cognitively functional in time for eggnog.

The accompanying novelization, which is credited to Sylvester Stallone but may have been written by a ghostwriter, elaborates on Rocky’s obsession with the bout. After Creed’s death, Rocky tries to petition the sanctioning body for boxing to permit him to fight Drago. They refuse, and Rocky is forced to give up his heavyweight belt in order to compete. There are other complications—black sheep brother-in-law Paulie wrecks Rocky’s car—but most of it seems to be in the service of inserting details in place of the film’s trademark montages.

The book does correct one of the movie’s subjective flaws: Rocky is quick to throw in the towel during Creed’s beating, making Drago less an accidental murderer and more of an actual one.


The canon established by Chris Columbus’s script for 1984’s Gremlins says only that the Mogwai are a race of adorably over-fuzzed creatures that spawn demonic offspring when they get wet or are fed after midnight. In George Gipe’s novelization, readers learn that Mogwai are actually an alien race dispatched to different planets in order to display a “peaceful spirit.” Gipe also had the notion to have Gizmo and Stripe converse in the Queen’s English, with Stripe calling his rival “my dear enemy.” Joe Dante, the movie’s director, said Gipe “made up” their galactic backstory, telling Empire in 2014 that Mogwai are the result of dragons and pandas mating. It's as good an explanation as any.


A screen shot from the 1984 film 'Ghostbusters'
Columbia Pictures

Released in 1984, Ghostbusters succeeded where many movies subsequently failed, mixing comedy with special effects in a story about four guys who treat ghost entrapment like pest extermination. Their secretary, Janine (Annie Potts) seems unaffected by the whole enterprise, answering the phone with “Gahhstbustahs.” But in the novelization by Richard Mueller, it’s revealed that she was responsible for the most iconic image of the business: the crossed-out Ghostbusters logo.


Novelizing a John Hughes screenplay must have seemed like a thankless task. The prolific writer/director had a very distinctive voice that was carried by his adolescent characters. One of his most enduring creations was the title teenager of 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an episodic tale of a high schooler (Matthew Broderick) who decides to skip class to hang out with his friends.

The film never specifies how Bueller comes up with the cash he spends in the course of his truancy, but the novel by Todd Strasser fills in the gaps. Apparently, Bueller convinces his father to give him the location of his savings bonds, which he proceeds to cash in at a local bank. He also steals a few bucks from his sister Jeanie.

The book provides other details, like what Ferris and his friends ate at the French restaurant and the fact that Ferris is apparently friendly with Garth Volbeck, the juvenile delinquent played by Charlie Sheen that Jeanie runs into in the police station near the end of the film.


More from mental floss studios