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April 21, 2014

Andrew Silow-Carroll: Passoverkill? Suggestions to make next year's seders even more culturally sensitive

Sara Israelsen Hartley: Seeking the Divine: An ancient connection in a new context

Christine M. Flowers: Priest's execution in Syria should be call to action

Courtnie Erickson: How to help kids accept the poor decisions of others

Lizette Borreli: A Glass Of Milk A Day Keeps Knee Arthritis At Bay

Lizette Borreli: 5 Health Conditions Your Breath Knows Before You Do

The Kosher Gourmet by Betty Rosbottom Coconut Walnut Bars' golden brown morsels are a beautifully balanced delectable delight

April 18, 2014

Rabbi Yonason Goldson: Clarifying one of the greatest philosophical conundrums in theology

Caroline B. Glick: The disappearance of US will

Megan Wallgren: 10 things I've learned from my teenagers

Lizette Borreli: Green Tea Boosts Brain Power, May Help Treat Dementia

John Ericson: Trying hard to be 'positive' but never succeeding? Blame Your Brain

The Kosher Gourmet by Julie Rothman Almondy, flourless torta del re (Italian king's cake), has royal roots, is simple to make, . . . but devour it because it's simply delicious

April 14, 2014

Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer: Passover frees us from the tyranny of time

Greg Crosby: Passing Over Religion

Eric Schulzke: First degree: How America really recovered from a murder epidemic

Georgia Lee: When love is not enough: Teaching your kids about the realities of adult relationships

Cameron Huddleston: Freebies for Your Lawn and Garden

Gordon Pape: How you can tell if your financial adviser is setting you up for potential ruin

Dana Dovey: Up to 500,000 people die each year from hepatitis C-related liver disease. New Treatment Has Over 90% Success Rate

Justin Caba: Eating Watermelon Can Help Control High Blood Pressure

The Kosher Gourmet by Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon Don't dare pass over these Pesach picks for Manischewitz!

April 11, 2014

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg: Silence is much more than golden

Caroline B. Glick: Forgetting freedom at Passover

Susan Swann: How to value a child for who he is, not just what he does

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Financial Tasks You Should Tackle Right Now

Sandra Block and Lisa Gerstner: How to Profit From Your Passion

Susan Scutti: A Simple Blood Test Might Soon Diagnose Cancer

Chris Weller: Have A Slow Metabolism? Let Science Speed It Up For You

The Kosher Gourmet by Diane Rossen Worthington Whitefish Terrine: A French take on gefilte fish

April 9, 2014

Jonathan Tobin: Why Did Kerry Lie About Israeli Blame?

Samuel G. Freedman: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Jessica Ivins: A resolution 70 years later for a father's unsettling legacy of ashes from Dachau

Kim Giles: Asking for help is not weakness

Kathy Kristof and Barbara Hoch Marcus: 7 Great Growth Israeli Stocks

Matthew Mientka: How Beans, Peas, And Chickpeas Cleanse Bad Cholesterol and Lowers Risk of Heart Disease

Sabrina Bachai: 5 At-Home Treatments For Headaches

The Kosher Gourmet by Daniel Neman Have yourself a matzo ball: The secrets bubby never told you and recipes she could have never imagined

April 8, 2014

Lori Nawyn: At Your Wit's End and Back: Finding Peace

Susan B. Garland and Rachel L. Sheedy: Strategies Married Couples Can Use to Boost Benefits

David Muhlbaum: Smart Tax Deductions Non-Itemizers Can Claim

Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., C.D.E : Before You Lose Your Mental Edge

Dana Dovey: Coffee Drinkers Rejoice! Your Cup Of Joe Can Prevent Death From Liver Disease

Chris Weller: Electric 'Thinking Cap' Puts Your Brain Power Into High Gear

The Kosher Gourmet by Marlene Parrish A gift of hazelnuts keeps giving --- for a variety of nutty recipes: Entree, side, soup, dessert

April 4, 2014

Rabbi David Gutterman: The Word for Nothing Means Everything

Charles Krauthammer: Kerry's folly, Chapter 3

Amy Peterson: A life of love: How to build lasting relationships with your children

John Ericson: Older Women: Save Your Heart, Prevent Stroke Don't Drink Diet

John Ericson: Why 50 million Americans will still have spring allergies after taking meds

Cameron Huddleston: Best and Worst Buys of April 2014

Stacy Rapacon: Great Mutual Funds for Young Investors

Sarah Boesveld: Teacher keeps promise to mail thousands of former students letters written by their past selves

The Kosher Gourmet by Sharon Thompson Anyone can make a salad, you say. But can they make a great salad? (SECRETS, TESTED TECHNIQUES + 4 RECIPES, INCLUDING DRESSINGS)

April 2, 2014

Paul Greenberg: Death and joy in the spring

Dan Barry: Should South Carolina Jews be forced to maintain this chimney built by Germans serving the Nazis?

Mayra Bitsko: Save me! An alien took over my child's personality

Frank Clayton: Get happy: 20 scientifically proven happiness activities

Susan Scutti: It's Genetic! Obesity and the 'Carb Breakdown' Gene

Lecia Bushak: Why Hand Sanitizer May Actually Harm Your Health

Stacy Rapacon: Great Funds You Can Own for $500 or Less

Cameron Huddleston: 7 Ways to Save on Home Decor

The Kosher Gourmet by Steve Petusevsky Exploring ingredients as edible-stuffed containers (TWO RECIPES + TIPS & TECHINQUES)

Jewish World Review March 24, 2009 / 28 Adar 5769

Short works of genius that cheer up the writing profession

By Paul Johnson


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http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Being a professional writer is a hard life. Producing a book, especially a long one, is a severe test of courage and endurance. For even after a successful day of writing, one must begin again the next morning, the blank sheet of paper in front of you: a daunting image to start the day, the mind empty, the brain groaning. I know. I have been at it for the best part of six long decades, and the number of books I have written is creeping up to 50. Several are over 1,000 printed pages. Think of the agony! I have no complaints, really. I have made a good living, and received more than my share of praise. But I like to mull over the special compensations which occasionally reward authors.


I am thinking particularly of those works, always short — sometimes very short — which are written on impulse, usually in record time, and which somehow hit a mark, right on target, bring unexpected fame and fortune, and live on to delight people long after the lucky author is mouldering away. A good example is Dickens's A Christmas Carol. He wrote it over two or three weeks in October and November 1843, when he was supposedly overwhelmed by producing on time the monthly numbers of Martin Chuzzlewit. It was causing him trouble, was selling fewer copies than he had hoped, and to turn aside from it and venture into a completely new field of a short Christmas romance, with ghosts and what-not, must have seemed a mad thing to do. But Dickens suddenly had an overwhelming desire to 'do something for the poor'.


The written text, headed by Dickens, 'My own and only MS of the book', he presented to Thomas Mitton, his lawyer, to whom he was particularly indebted at the time. It was bought, in the 1890s, by J. Pierpont Morgan, and is now in his library in New York. The library has produced a sumptuous facsimile edition, of which I am a proud owner, and this shows how Dickens wrote it: all in one go, hurriedly, with many corrections but these done at the time, so writing and revision was one continuous process. Every line is spontaneous, and inspiration leaps from each page. Yet, while writing it all day, Dickens was pondering over it much of the night. He says he 'walked thinking of it 15 or 20 miles about the back streets of London. Many and many a night after all sober folks had gone to bed.'


The success was instant. Thackeray called it 'a national benefit'. Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review and a Scots judge, told Dickens his little book 'has done more good than a year's work by all the pulpits and confessionals'. An American factory owner, as soon as he finished reading it, gave all his workers a day's holiday. Strangest of all, Carlyle, dyspeptic and curmudgeonly, ordered a large turkey and (said his wife Jane) was 'seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality and arranged two dinner parties'. The Carol has been read and recited and acted and sung and filmed and televised perhaps more often than any other work of fiction. Yet oddly enough Dickens was out of pocket at the time. The initial sale was 6,000 copies, for which he received £150. It was pirated, Dickens sued the pirates, they went bankrupt, and he had to pay his own costs of £700. Yet its popularity was a joy for the rest of his life, and it remains his most read work, and enjoyed, too, by people of all ages. I know bits of it by heart. It is much more subtle than it seems. Its notion of time, for instance, implies that the past is not unchangeable, and that past, present and future interact. It is a profound philosophical statement of anti-fatalism.


A similar, invigorating example is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, in my view the best short book ever written for boys of all ages; ladettes, too, I suppose. This was written on impulse too, in a flash, in a cottage in Braemar, almost within sight of Queen Victoria's Balmoral. He wrote a chapter a day for 15 days. Then, suddenly, he got stuck in chapter 16. This was August 1881. He couldn't finish it, and the book, until he went to Davos in the winter. But while he was in full flow, he read aloud each finished chapter in the evening to such as were staying in the house — Gosse, Sir Sidney Colvin, etc. He had a great sense of drama, and while he read he swayed rhythmically. One listener said: 'His fine voice, clear, and keen in some of its notes, had a wonderful power of inflection and variation.' What magic to hear this enchanting, flawless work, read by the tall, slender, fragile author, as he produced it each evening — a unique literary event, like listening to Homer and his lyre.


Of course, plays are more likely to fit into this category than novels or even stories. Plays, if you examine them closely, contain very few words, for the pauses and the action take up a lot of the playing time. If they are comedies, where pauses are so important, and silent comic business so vital, even fewer words are necessary. If one is looking for a perfect comedy, one need go no further than The Importance of Being Earnest. It was written at No. 5, The Esplanade, Worthing, in August 1894, and I think it gave Oscar Wilde more pleasure than any other of his works. It is, somehow, pure, simple, innocent and harmless. It is as far removed as humanly and spiritually possible from the evil which was beginning to surround Wilde and was, within a year, to overwhelm him. Moreover, it is delightfully funny, and actors enjoy playing it as much as audiences love seeing it. Wilde himself found it hilarious while writing it, and laughed a lot, out loud, as Dickens did when in comic spate. Wilde said that, while he was still jotting out the lines, the pages lay 'in Sibylline leaves about the room'. Arthur, his butler, had 'tidied them up twice' and 'made a chaos'. But, Wilde added, the result was itself 'rather dramatic', and he concluded: 'I am inclined to think that Chaos is a stronger evidence for an Intelligent Creator than Cosmos is: the view might be expanded.' So it could, indeed. I do not know exactly how long the play took to set down. Thirty working days, perhaps? Rather less, probably. But its joys are endless. The TLS recently devoted an entire article to the way in which Edith Evans, as Lady Bracknell, pronounced the two words 'A handbag?'


It is true that hugely successful plays are often written at even greater speed. NoŽl Coward dashed off Hay Fever over a weekend, I think. Still more remarkably, Blithe Spirit took him only five days in 1941, 'perhaps the darkest period of the war', he recorded. It gave him pleasure, made people all over the world laugh until their sides ached, and had the longest run, at that date, of any play put on in the West End, a record not beaten till the 1970s.


My final example is not quite so obvious. The background to Chaucer's writing of The Canterbury Tales is not known, though we can date it to about 1387. What is clear to me, however, from a lifetime of reading it, is that the Prologue was written after Chaucer had put down the Tales, or most of them anyway. He originally planned a bigger work, for each of the 31 pilgrims was to tell four stories. In fact only 23 pilgrims tell stories and there are only 24 altogether (Chaucer himself tells two). In the process Chaucer conceived the idea of his brilliant verse portraits of the people, and by the time the bulk of the storytelling was done he was itching to carry out his new and brilliant idea. So he did, and wrote (I think) at breakneck speed, and produced one of the most marvellous works in any literature. These pictures of a cross-section of English society in the last days of Edward III are as good as anything in the Italian Renaissance, and as literature were not to be equalled until Shakespeare. What a lightning triumph! Makes you want to be a writer.

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Previously:

02/11/09: What would Darwin do?
01/27/09: Are you sophisticated? Here's how to find out
01/06/09: What did they talk about in the Ice Age? The weather, of course
09/09/08: Time, and our appalling ignorance of it
08/19/08: Eye-stopping glimpses of an exotic and forbidden world
06/30/08: How to fill a lecture hall, and how to empty it
06/23/08: Americans should count their blessings
05/20/08: Pajamas for Presidents
05/13/08: Literary woodlice boring needless holes in biographical bedposts
04/01/08: When markets come crashing down, send for the man with the big red nose
04/01/08: Quality for dinner. Pass the Fairy Liquid, Old Boy
03/25/08: In search of an American President with brains and guts
03/18/08: Technological warfare against mice won't work. Try cats
03/11/08: What is a genius? We use the word frequently but surely, to guard its meaning, we should bestow it seldom
03/03/08: Fiction as a crutch to get one through life
02/26/08: Impatience + Greed = Trouble
02/13/08: Shakespeare, Neo-Platonism and Princess Diana
02/07/08: Where Industry Has Failed Us
12/19/07: People who put their trust in human power delude themselves
12/12/07: What is aggression?
12/04/07: Pursuing success is not enough
11/07/07: Are famous writers accident-prone?
10/31/07: Courage needed to disarm Iran
09/20/07: Who Will Say ‘I Promise to Lay Off’?
07/24/07: Greed is safer than power-seeking
04/02/07: Benefactors must be hardheaded
03/07/07: American idealism and realpolitik
11/28/06: Space: Our ticket to survival
10/24/06: Envy is bad economics
10/11/06: Better to Borrow or Lend? Rethinking conventional wisdom
08/22/06: Don't practice legal terrorism
08/08/06: A summer rhapsody for a pedal-bike
08/03/06: Why is there no workable philosophy of music?
07/11/06: Historically speaking, energy crisis is America's opportunity
07/06/06: The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty ones
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle

© 2009, Paul Johnson

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