Archive for the “Books” Category

The_Martian_2014Our next book for Somerville Reads, our annual community one town/one book series of events, is the critically acclaimed best-seller The Martian, the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and his struggle for survival. The Wall Street Journal called it “The best pure sci-fi novel in years.” Kirkus Reviews praised it for being “sharp, funny and thrilling.”  A film adaptation directed by Ridley Scott (the genius behind one of the best sci-fi films of all time) will be in theaters in November.

Copies of the book are at SPL now. Come get one!


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twainOn this day in 1883 Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi was published. For readers who know Twain primarily as the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Life  is a bit of a surprise, but it’s actually a quite typical book for Twain: part memoir, part travelogue, part rumination. The core of the work is Twain’s account of his pre-Civil War training to become a steamboat pilot; but it’s also a work of  regional history and a love letter to a phenomenon of nature: the Mississippi River. In one passage, he recalls seeing the river at sunset early in his steamboat career:

A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal…

And like all of Twain’s works, Life has some moments of comedy, although they probably won’t seem that funny to adults today. But mostly this book is a reflection on a vanished world, when the Mississippi was a highway for trade and travel for the middle of a continent, and the pilots who navigated ships safely up and down it were esteemed as masters of a valuable and complicated craft. Twain wrote Life on the Mississippi at a time when all that was gone, when the railroads had become the most important means of shipping and mode of travel in America and cities such as Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans were completely different from what they were in his youth.

It’s worth a read, and yet far from his best. For the record, it was one of my favorite books when I was fourteen. I keep meaning to go back to it, but so many books, so little time.

If you’re interested in learning more about Mark Twain and this period in his life, you might want to pick up one of any number of the fine biographies of Twain, such as Ron Powers’ Mark Twain: A Life.


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booksaleCome to the Central Library next weekend and stock up on books! Ones you can keep forever! There will be thousands of books covering dozens of subjects in at least four languages.

Our book sales happen thanks to the hard work of the Friends of the Somerville Public Library. Proceeds from SPL’s book sales pay for our museum passes and programs.




Book sale schedule:

Thursday, May 14      5:00-8:00 pm preview (For Friends who joined at the $50 level or higher)

Friday, May 15             12:00-4:00 pm

Saturday, May 16        10:00 am-4:00 pm

Sunday, May 17            1:30-3:30 pm


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lincolnYesterday was the 150th anniversary of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot in the head in Ford’s Theater, where he was watching the play Our American Cousin. A century and a half and three presidential assassinations later, it’s impossible for us to comprehend what a national trauma it was.  It was the first time an American president had been murdered.

Ford’s Theater has put together an online exhibit on national reactions to the assassination. It’s a fantastic example of how the Internet can be used to teach history. I’ve been a history geek my entire life. I wish the Web (and sites like this) had been around when I was a kid. Among the most instructive aspects of the exhibit are the indications that many people welcomed Lincoln’s death–and not just in the former Confederacy.  The site has an interactive map where you can see reactions to the assassination in different parts of the country. In San Francisco some people were apparently quite happy about it: Major General MacDowell ordered that anyone celebrating Lincoln’s death be arrested. To characterize the war as “North against South” is clearly an oversimplification.

The site has an additional collection of written reactions to Lincoln’s assassination, including Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain, My Captain!” and diary entries by Emilie Davis a free African-American  Philadelphian who wrote in her diary, “everything assumes a solemn aspect the streets look mournful the people more so.”

freedomThe anniversary is related to two popular subject areas at SPL: the Civil War and true crime. The Battle Cry of Freedom is a compulsively readable one-volume history of the Civil War.   I’ve also enjoyed another book by the same author: For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.

For those fascinated by presidential assassinations, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Destiny of the Republic, an account of the shooting of President Garfield and the attempts to save him. It’s a gripping read: not only does the author vividly recount the life of an almost completely forgotten president, she also tells a fascinating story of nineteenth-century medicine. Alexander Graham Bell was summoned to Washington and asked to invent a device that could find the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body (no pressure). But the effort to create an X-ray machine was the only part of the president’s treatment that resembled modern medicine. In fact Garfield probably would have survived if he had been kept away from his doctors, who poked and prodded in his wound with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments.


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…for April 9, 2015

Grant150 years ago today Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, bringing an end to four years of war that caused 600,000 deaths.  The generosity and forbearance of the victors in the American Civil War has no historical precedent: there were no executions; Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their property; Confederate prisoners were released as soon as they swore an oath to never again fight against the U. S. government. When Union soldiers began to fire and cheer in celebration, Grant ordered them to stop: “The Rebels are now our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after victory will be to refrain from all celebrations.”

The war inspired a vast body of written work, including novels, cold Mountain Book Coverhistory, memoirs and poetry. My favorite novel set during the Civil War is Cold Mountain by James Frazier, the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier making his way back home to North Carolina and to Ada, the woman he loves. While Inman does his best to stay alive in a war-ravaged land where all order has broken down, the once-wealthy Ada has to re-learn how to live, how to grow her own vegetables, raise livestock and make her own clothes. This winner of the 1997 National Book Award is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read in that I could actually believe the characters were from the nineteenth century, that I was experiencing a world I knew about, but that was at the same time profoundly alien.

One of my favorite works of Civil War history is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s focus on so short a time period enables him to give his readers a sense of what it was like to live, work and fight in 1865. We follow Lincoln’s secretary John Hay as he walks to the telegraph office in the evening to wait for the latest reports from the front. We sit in on the deliberations of the Confederate government as they realize time is running out. And agonizingly, we walk with John Wilkes Booth into Ford’s Theater up to the President’s box where he commits one of the greatest crimes of all time. But this book is more than an epic retelling of events in the lives of famous men. Winik never lets you forget what the war was really about, and the greatest good that came out of it. He recounts the ex-slave Houston Holloway’s memory of becoming free in 1865: “I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

goreFor an overview of the cultural and political world of America in the 1850s and 60s, you probably can’t do better than Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Literature of the American Civil War. Wilson discusses, analyzes and dissects the writing of the period: travel accounts by Northerners in the South, diaries of Confederate ladies, memoirs by Union generals. He also reflects on the work of post-war writers who were shaped by the conflict, such as Kate Chopin and Ambrose Bierce.

If you’re interested in learning about the Civil War but none of these titles sound appealing, come to the library and ask me or one of my co-workers for help finding something. That’s why we’re here.


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Portrai163 years ago today Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in two volumes by the Boston firm John P. Jewett. The book had initially appeared in serial form in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era. 10,000 copies of the two-volume set were sold in two weeks and 300,000 in the first year. Jewett himself said, “Three power presses are working twenty-four hours per day, in printing it,…and still it has been impossible…to supply the demand.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the first American novel to sell a million copies, and is considered the most influential book of the nineteenth century for its role in turning public opinion against slavery. Related reading at SPL: Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz and Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol by Nell Irvin Painter.

On this day in 1841  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue poeMorgue,” which is considered the first modern detective story, appeared in Graham’s Magazine. Certain aspects of the story became long-lasting conventions of detective fiction, including the brilliant detective with the less-than-brilliant sidekick who serves as narrator, the police who aren’t quite up to the job, and the clues that are hidden in plain sight which only the detective notices and understands.  Arthur Conan Doyle called Poe’s work “a model for all time” and based Sherlock Holmes in part upon Poe’s fictional detective, C. Augustin Dupin. Related reading and viewing at SPL: the Library of American collection Crime Novels: American Noir of the 30s and 40s, the nonfiction work Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries and the Revolution in Forensic Science, and the incomparable BBC television series Sherlock.




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In January of 2014, I started on an AudioBook journey that was prompted by a conversation with a library patron during my evening work rotation on the Central Library’s circulation desk. I value the conversations I have with many of the patrons here at the Somerville Public Library, many of whom I know not necessarily by name, but by the routine with which they use the Library services and the overlap with my desk assignments both evenings and weekends. I find our patrons (adults, young adults, children, parents, boomers and beyond) to be insightful and enthusiastic when prompted by a conversation surrounding their imminent check-out (book, audiobook, film, music.)

Such was the case with a conversation that arose with a patron who was checking out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I mentioned to the patron that I’d read and enjoyed both Blink and The Tipping Point and in return he recommended What the Dog Saw (a series of short stories by Gladwell), and I thanked him for the suggestion. At this point in the blog, you should probably know that prior to my Circulation assignment I spent my evening rotation in what was previously our AV Department (the current Teen Library) and witnessed first-hand the volume of AudioBooks that circulated through SPL. I used to do an informal poll of patrons as to their intended use of the AudioBooks by these patrons and discovered a recurring theme – most patrons listened to the AudioBooks during a long commute (work or pleasure trips), or were crafters (listened while knitting, crocheting, sewing, beading, etc.) and occasionally there were bleary-eyed parents of newborns, late-night caregivers or gardeners. Truthfully? I just didn’t think I’d be one to warm up to “listening” to a book when I love the prospect of having a good book in my hands.

So… there I was, a year ago, with a decision to make as I readied my finger to click on the search/hold for What the Dog Saw. The decision to select an AudioBook has changed my literary life forever!

For starters, (in my opinion) one of the single most important “make or break” for any AudioBook is the reader. As personal as every book choice we make, the voice of the reader has to appeal to and immediately connect with the listener. Think of it as reading the jacket of a book for a synopsis and deciding that 1) yes, I think I will read this book, or 2) no, this one is not for me. In selecting a book, the only voice you will hear is your own as you read the words of the story. Now add to the decision of selecting an AudioBook the fact that the voice you will be listening to is someone else’s. From a parental standpoint, it is humbling to realize that both my boys needed to make that exact decision every night as young children. Mom or dad for the bedtime story? “Who makes better truck sounds?” In hindsight, we both shared equally in the raising of our readers, so I feel very fortunate!

Having devoted a full year to exploring a variety of AudioBooks (including Playaway), the bottom line for me is that I would wholeheartedly recommend that you give this option a try in 2015. Don’t give up after one or two tries- once I settled into a rhythm of selections, I latched onto a genre, author and/or reader and made multiple selections- I thoroughly enjoyed some***, got through others** , and returned a few* 20 minutes into “the listen.” (It’s all good, life is short and there are so many choices and voices out there waiting to be discovered!)

Below is a list of the AudioBooks I selected during 2014-I plan to do a follow up BiblioBites of my favorites in a future post along with some print selections I read in between audio selections. Note: the list is not entirely in the order I listened to them.

These selections are read by the author:
What the Dog Saw – Malcolm Gladwell ***
Seriously…I’m Kidding – Ellen DeGeneres***
This Time Together: Laughter and Reflections – Carol Burnett**
Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Stephanie Cohen*
Bossypants - Tina Fey***
The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman*

These selections were read by a variety of talented readers other than the author who is listed :
Deadly Heat - Richard Castle***
Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walters***
Doctor Sleep – Steven King***
Cross My Heart - James Patterson (playaway/beach walking)***
Vanish - Tess Gerritsen***
20th Century Ghosts - Joe Hill (broad daylight listening only)***
Heat Wave - Richard Castle***
Frozen Heat - Richard Castle ***
Escape - Barbra Delinsky**
Heat Rises - Richard Castle***
The Accident - Chris Pavone (playaway/beach walking)***
Naked Heat - Richard Castle***
The Cuckoo’s Calling - Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)***
The Silent Girl - Tess Gerritsen***
Mr. Mercedes - Steven King***
The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith***


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Here is part 2 of the Q & A with Dr. Alice LoCicero, who will be at the Central Library on Thursday, March 19th at 7:00 p.m. to discuss her new book, Why “Good Kids” Turn Into Deadly Terrorists: Deconstructing the Accused Boston Marathon Bombers and Others Like Them.

Aren’t you afraid that people will disparage you for writing about the perpetrators?

Yes. And I hope people will understand after talking with me for a few minutes that my goal is prevention, plain and simple. As a social scientist, I believe that the best way towards prevention starts with knowledge.

The events surrounding the Marathon attacks shook me, just like it did all who live and work in the Boston area. There were so many losses of young people that especially tore at me. The loss of a promising young officer in the MIT police, a young man close in age to my own son and who, I learned, was a lot like many of the sincere and caring students of criminal justice I have taught over the years. Lingzi Lu, an international student from China who had just passed an important exam in statistics, who had made new friends in Boston, and who loved music. Active and engaged eight year old Martin Richard, a lovable child who advocated for peace, from a family who gave much to their community. Krystle Campbell, who was known as caring, reliable, life-affirming, and generous. Thinking about them leaves me, and all of Boston, in tears and grief at the promising young people we as a community have lost. The impact of the bombing did not end with those lives lost. Hundreds more were injured, and many of their injuries are so severe that their lives are changed forever. The Boston community has shown tremendous care and support, helping to lessen, as much as possible, the devastating impacts of the bombings. If only we could have protected those affected, and their families, by preventing the attacks.

Cambridge, Massachusetts has been home to me for decades. My children went to school in Cambridge. I worried, along with my neighbors, about whether the school our children had gone to and the city had somehow failed these young men. I remember being haunted by the question that President Obama, on April 19, asked: “what would bring these young men, who had lived in our communities and studied in our schools, to resort to violence?” I was challenged by that question. I strongly felt that it was a question that had to be answered and could be answered. And that I was in a position to help.

While none of us could undo the horror of April 15, 2013, together, I believe we can shape the future to reduce the likelihood of such horror occurring again. From 2002 to 2006, I had worked on research on terrorism. In 2006, I co-founded an international organization we call the Society for Terrorism Research, as a forum to collaborate with colleagues with similar interests. That society is still going strong. For my personal contribution to ending terrorism, I did something that several colleagues considered rash: I traveled to a country where a civil war was going on, to talk to kids about the war and about why kids would choose to fight as part of one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE.

I wrote about the results of that research in the book, Creating Young Martyrs. As I explored and researched the events in Boston, I found that some of what I had learned in Sri Lanka was parallel to what I was learning about the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing. I started to write. My editor at Praeger and I decided that this research, too, should turn into a book-length report.

All the while I was studying terrorism, I was also working with those affected by it: The 9/11 families, teachers and child care workers in Sri Lanka, and refugees from many parts of the world. Each encounter with someone affected strengthened my determination to do what I could to prevent these events. I am hopeful that my book will help.

My work has included conversation with other psychologists in the EU and the US who are pursuing similar paths. We have all, separately and without prior consultation, come to similar conclusions. Preventing young people from radicalization, recruitment, and terrorist acts is a function of the community—parents, teachers, coaches, neighbors, friends. Law enforcement and government have their role, but they cannot do this alone.

How can ordinary citizens be expected to prevent terrorism?

It all begins with listening, being interested in the experiences of kids. Virtually every teenager I talk with tells me that neither their parents nor their teachers really know about the pressures they face. They try to protect their parents by keeping things private, not wanting to worry them. My colleagues and I believe that parents need to be aware and proactive in making time and creating conditions to talk to kids. Some kids are more private than others, and some would rather talk to recruitment is not an aberration. Attempts to recruit kids to illegal and often violent actions are common. And in today’s globally connected society, recruiters and the recruitment process can be virtually invisible to families and loved ones.

How can you refer to people like the accused Boston Marathon bombers as “good kids”?

When the Tsarnaev brothers were younger, all reports from teachers, peers, and others indicate that they were good kids. One of the younger brother’s teachers referred to him as having a “heart of gold.” Their friends were horrified and also totally surprised that they could do such a heinous act. The same is true for kids around the world who later became terrorists. The Norwegian who participated in the Nairobi mall bombing was planning to be a physician and was viewed as a good kid. The Tunisian boy who put on a suicide vest was successful and sociable. The Tamil girl who was featured in a film about kids who joined a terrorist organization had wanted to be a nun. It is these very kids—caring, altruistic—who are targeted by unscrupulous recruiters who then manipulate the truth, bringing them to believe that the best, most caring, and most altruistic thing they can do is to bring attention to causes of concern by engaging in terrorist actions.

Is your approach likely to help prevent kids from joining ISIS?

Yes. The ISIS force is no different in the sense that it presents an image that is hideous to most, but can be presented to naïve youth as an opportunity to fight against the most powerful forces in the world, to fight for the “underdog.” Especially kids who have seen, in news report after news report, American forces fighting in dominantly Muslim countries, can easily believe that someone should “level the uneven playing field.” Recruiters use a lot of psychology and sophisticated marketing, designed to appeal to a teenager.

We have a huge task ahead: to present a realistic picture, providing time and space that will enable kids to re-evaluate the story being told by recruiters.

Dr. Alice LoCicero is a clinical and research psychologist who lives in Cambridge. She is core faculty at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at Boston Medical Center. In addition to this most recent book, she is also the author of Creating Young Martyrs: Conditions That Make Dying in a Terrorist Attack Seem Like a Good Idea (Praeger, 2008).


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Cambridge author Alice LoCicero will be at the Central Library on Thursday, March 19th at 7:00 p.m. to discuss her new book, Why “Good Kids” Turn Into Deadly Terrorists: Deconstructing the Accused Boston Marathon Bombers and Others Like Them.

In her book, Dr. LoCicero argues that the exploitation, by opportunistic zealots, of children and young adults—whether from Sri Lanka, Somalia, Tunisia, or her own hometown of Cambridge, MA—can be stopped. After years of research into youth violence and martyrdom, Dr. LoCicero explains that communities have the power to better understand and successfully thwart recruitment efforts. With the upcoming trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnev, there has never been a better moment to explore how we can work toward helping impressionable youth from becoming pawns in battles they do not fully understand.

Below is the first part of a Q & A with Dr. LoCicero. The second part will appear tomorrow.

Why did you write your new book?

As one of the world’s top experts in children who are recruited to terrorist groups, I was sad, though not surprised, in 2013 at the first instance of so-called “homegrown terrorism,” something I had predicted in my first book on child terrorists, published in 2008. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Boston, and the accused perpetrators were from my own town of Cambridge, Massachusetts. My neighbors, stunned that such a thing could happen here, were asking how and why it did. All this compelled me to research and write specifically about this instance of youthful terrorism, as an example of how this can happen and what we can do to prevent it in the future.

Didn’t Cambridge do everything it could to support these brothers?

Cambridge did everything that any city could have been expected to do at the time the Tsarnaev brothers were growing up. But we all—inside and outside Cambridge—have to begin to do more than we did in the past. Now that we are more aware of the fact that many American youth, at a vulnerable time in their lives, are making choices that are consequential for themselves and others, often without consulting with the caring and engaged adults who could actually help them make the best choice possible, we have to find ways to make such consulting easier and more accessible. For example, adults who care about kids have to feel comfortable, and be rational, in discussing gangs, violence, and terrorism, and how kids may be seduced, misled, and recruited to act in ways that are against their own best interest, as well as the best interest of the people they love. Kids have to be helped to understand, I think, what it means to have multiple loyalties, and how they can best help others they care about.

Aren’t these sorts of kids bad, crazy, deranged, suicidal, etc.?

Each person who engages in violence has, of course, their own life history, and if we look hard enough, we will find some problems, some traumas, some personal challenges, and some losses. All this is important, but by itself is not sufficient to explain why young people like the Tsarnaevs resort to horrible acts of violence against innocent people. We must look harder at the context, culture, and, especially at the deliberate and ruthless methods of recruiters who would use them for their own gain, and who care not at all about the young people’s welfare. The recruiters are willing to talk young people into sacrificing their lives or at least their ability to have a productive life. They appeal to the inherent idealism of youth, and somehow convince them that the best thing they can do for people they care about is to kill other, innocent people, in order to make a statement. The young people who are recruited are, in a very counterintuitive sense, more likely to think of their action as altruistic, rather than as evil. But in their calculations, they fail to consider how much they could do if they survive, are educated, and act in non-violent manner to support others. This is the sort of thing that adults must be able to help with, in a calm and thoughtful manner. That is not, by the way, as easy as it sounds. We adults in the community will have to work hard to prepare ourselves.

What risks will people face if they try to discourage recruitment?

The greatest risk people face when they show an interest in terrorism in the US is that they will be misunderstood. Their neighbors, friends, coworkers, family members, and most worrisome, the law enforcement authorities, may think that they are too interested in terrorism, and may begin to look at them with some vague suspicion. They may be subject to increased scrutiny by security agencies. This is why I suggest that these efforts be undertaken as part of a larger group, and that officials and law enforcement be made aware that caring adults in the community are studying and creating ways to talk and listen to kids, and what their intentions are. I do not think law enforcement automatically has the wisdom or tools to intervene, though they have an important role. In Norway, interventions started with law enforcement and are now expanding to include members of the community at large. I think ordinary, caring adults who engage with children every day are in the best position to help.

Dr. Alice LoCicero is a clinical and research psychologist who lives in Cambridge. She is core faculty at the Center for Multicultural Training in Psychology at Boston Medical Center. In addition to this most recent book, she is also the author of Creating Young Martyrs: Conditions That Make Dying in a Terrorist Attack Seem Like a Good Idea (Praeger, 2008).


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This is a longer post than usual, so bear with me.


In January of 1903 13-year-old Bruce Frederick Cummings, a boy living in southwest England, began his diary by writing, “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing on ‘How Cats Spend Their Time.'” The entry reflects an ambitious, eccentric mind with an innocence typical of precocious children. It’s also the beginning of  what might well be one of the best diaries in English since Pepys: The Journal of a Disappointed Man. Young Cummings may not have written about how cats spend their time, but he’s happily telling us how he spends his: walks in the country, shooting at birds with slingshots, bike riding with friends. Like any bright teen with an expanding vocabulary he’s trying out new words (“the grasshoppers are beginning to stridulate”) and branching out in his reading (“Am reading The Origin of Species… I understand it so far…”). He wants to be a naturalist, and it’s when he’s expressing his love of nature that you realize young Cummings is going to be a really good writer one day: “I have used the term ‘Study of Nature’ but it cannot be called a study. It is a pastime of sheer delight, with naught but beautiful dreams and lovely thoughts.”

In spite of his intelligence and enthusiasm, Cummings’ prospects for becoming a scientist are bleak. His parents have no money for higher education. He has to leave school at 16 to help support his family. But he refuses to give up on his dream. He works all day but studies science doggedly, as evidenced by entries such as, “Oct 1 Am studying Chemistry and attending classes at the Evening School. Am also teaching myself German. I wish I had a microscope.” He also makes every effort to meet professional scientists. Amidst all his entries about the endless round of study and work, his love of science glistens in such entries as “When I dissect a Lamprey and cast eyes on the branchial basket, such structures strike me as being as finished and exquisite as if they had just a moment before been tossed me fresh from the hands of the Creator.”

But there’s a dark undercurrent to all this energy and joy. He has his first heart attack when he’s only 20. His health is bad but his doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with him (he is now believed to have had multiple sclerosis).  Some diary entries are boatsaturated with despair (“with the uncertainty of life…all scientific labour for me seems futile”) others glimmer with humor that shows he still enjoys life (“I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down via sea jelly and worms and Fish…and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?”)

Then he has some very good luck. One of his scientific contacts nominates him to take an exam for a job in the Natural History Department of the British Museum. He aces the exam. You can feel how happy he is when he writes, “I’m in, in, in!!!!!!!!!” He settles into a life in London and a job he loves. He makes new friends. But illness won’t leave him alone. The diary entries are blotted with the language of sickness: “down with influenza,” “appalling dyspepsia,” “heart intermittent,” “specialist..found a dull spot on one of my lungs.”

He’s 23 and he has to face the reality that he may soon die.

But he continues to write about loving his work, publishing scientific papers, having spats with friends, and flirtations and dates with an unnamed woman. At one point he writes, “Am I in love? God knows–but I don’t suppose God cares.”

Most twenty-something men who were terminally ill would just sink into self-pity. But Cummings maintains a passionate interest in everything going on in the world. When news reaches London of the tragic end of Scott’s Antarctic expedition, he writes, “The news. .  .gave me cold thrills. I could have wept…. What splendid people we humans are!”

His response to his impending death is simply to live as richly as he could. To pack a lifetime into youth, even as illness closes in around him.  He proposes to his unnamed girlfriend (whom he’s begun to refer to as “E.–“).  She says yes. And she knows he’s dying.

On the day he plans to buy the wedding ring he’s temporarily too weak to walk so he has to send someone else out for it. Ten days after his wedding he has a mild heart attack.

But to the last he remains determined not to let this disease that is destroying his body kill his mind or spirit. His writes his thoughts about the First World War, his enjoyment of Chopin, idle banter with friends. He learns E.– is pregnant.  Ninth months later he writes, “Home again with my darling. She is the most wonderful darling woman. Our love is for always. The Baby is a monster.”

As his health worsens, he resorts to grim jokes. Jan. 20 1917: “Even as I sit and write, millions of bacteria are gnawing away my precious spinal cord, and if you put your ear to my back the sound of the gnawing I dare say could be heard.”

Amazingly, he can still rebound emotionally, still be amazed by the beauty of the world: “Last night, I pulled aside the window curtain of our front door…Just below the densely black projecting gable of the house I saw the crescent moon lying on her back in a bed of purple sky, and I saw our little white frosted garden path curving up towards the garden gate. It was a delicious coup d’œil,*  and I shewed it to E——.”

In October of 1917 he writes, “I am only twenty-eight, but I have telescoped into those few years a tolerably long life: I have wept and enjoyed; struggled and overcome, and when the hour comes I shall be content to die.”

He died in 1919.  But not before publishing his diary, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, under the pseudonym W. N. P. Barbellion (the initials stand for Wilhelm Nero Pilate).

If I could pick just one book as a treatment for depression or self-pity, it’s this one.



*Glance. Literally, “Stroke of the eye.”


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