Monthly Archives: July 2014

Chasing a masterpiece

cover from pdf of novel (618x1024)

Long before Lawrence of Arabia the movie — and before T.E. Lawrence himself — there was Charles Montagu Doughty (1843-1926), a most intrepid Englishman who ventured where only Arabs had dared to tread.  Doughty’s most celebrated book is the epic Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888).  The book fell into obscurity; Lawrence rediscovered it in the 1920’s and it has become accepted as a classic of the travel literature.


I am reading Travels now, and find that it lives up to its reputation … it is a beautifully written account of a daring journey.  Today I sat in a coffee house, savoring the adventures and the prose, as I read Travels on my Nook Touch e-reader.

But … getting to that point was not an easy process.

To make rabbit stew, the first thing you have to do is catch the rabbit.  To read a book, the first thing you have to do is … be aware that the book exists.  I probably came across references to the Doughty before, but what gave me a recent push was a passage from another book I’m reading, William Gaddis’ The Recognitions:

At other times he [Wyatt] was feverishly awake, and the books stacked round him could not hold his exhausted attention. Their titles ran from Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta to A Coptic Treatise Contained in the Codex Brucianus, the Rosarium Philosophorum, two books of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Wyer’s De Prœstigiif Dœmonum, Llorente’s Inquisition d’Espagne, …

These were books selected by Father Gwyon — widely-read way beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy — for his son to read.  I was intrigued to see the Doughty called out in such illustrious (or at least impressive-sounding) company …

Where do you look for a public-domain classic?  (A digital copy, mind you!  I will only read a bricks-and-mortar book in the most dire of emergencies.)  Project Gutenberg is the natural place to start.  But the book, rather oddly, is not there.  The Online Books Page points to Google Books as having at least Volume I of this mammoth work.  I excitedly downloaded their ePub version, but was doused with cold water when I saw how corrupt the text was.  I should have remembered that unlike the Gutenberg books, which are meticulously proofread, the Google ones appear to be thrown at the public just the way they come from the OCR (optical character recognition) process.  Here’s the beginning of the scanned, OCR’ed, ePub version of Chapter 1, preceded by three lines of the chapter summary:

Ch 1 first pg EPUB

I now realized that I would have to make do with the actual Google scan … a PDF file.  Anyone experienced with e-books will tell you that PDF’s are a pain in the you-know-where to read on an e-reader.  But I made it work, though it wasn’t easy.  To begin with, I have a Nook Touch e-reader that I have customized (OK, well, er, “rooted”; see these links for more information).  On it, I installed ezPDF Reader, which has very useful options such as “Landscape” format, and Zooming the text to any size desired.

(And yes, I know that reading a PDF file is easier on a tablet — iPad, Android, or what have you — with the normal LCD color display.  But, such a device just lacks the coziness and book-like quality of the e-paper and e-ink found on a dedicated e-reader.  Not to mention lacking the long battery life and read-in-the-sun ability.)

I then had to massage the PDF file itself.  (The following steps require a PC sporting the full-fledged Adobe Acrobat program; Adobe Reader alone will not cut it.)  I was having a lot of trouble accessing the PDF on my Nook until I created a new PDF version, incorporating OCR text recognition.  Weirdly enough, this helped ezPDF Reader open the original scanned file properly; it also had the distinct advantage of allowing one to copy-and-paste memorable snippets of the text into another file.  I then cut off a 50-page chunk so that my Nook would not be struggling with a mammoth file.  (Later, I realized that I could vastly reduce the size of the PDF file by saving it as “optimized”, so perhaps cutting off that chunk was not necessary.)

Here followeth a snippet of the PDF file, in all its original — if messy — 1888 glory. (The smear at the left helps explain why there were so many mistakes in Google’s OCR process.)

Ch 1 first pg (735x1280)

Was it all worth it?  Heck, I’m now set up for many hours of latte-sipping at my coffee house, while I’m jouncing around on that camel and experiencing wonders all around me.  Here’s one delight I just came across today:  You probably know the Biblical phrase “balm in Gilead”?  Here is Doughty’s actual observation of the land called Gilead:

Westward towards Jordan lies Gilead, a land of noble aspect in these bald countries. How fresh to the sight and sweet to even- sense are those woodland limestone hills, full of the balmsmelling pines and the tree-laurel sounding with the sobbing sweetness and the amorous wings of doves! in all paths are blissful fountains; the valley heads flow down healing to the eyes with veins of purest water.


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Lizzie the sociopath

Lizzie the sociopath

Wikipedia prefers “psychopath” to its equivalent, “sociopath”.  I like “sociopath” because it brings out that this disorder involves the relationship of the person with others … and also because it avoids sounding like the totally unrelated “psychotic” condition.  But whichever name you use, it is “a personality disorder characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior” (Wiki). You might know someone you think fills this bill. To be more sure, you might fill out the “Hare checklist” (Google it) and see how many points your friend accumulates!

The Eustace Diamonds is not one of the first Trollopes I would have someone read*, but in its main character, Lizzie Eustace, we have a high-fidelity rendering of the sociopathic type.  At the outset, Trollope confides in the reader that he can not bring himself to deliver an elaborate  “back story” on this character:

We will tell the story of Lizzie Greystock from the beginning, but we will not dwell over it at great length, as we might do if we loved her.

Here are several more quotations that address Lizzie’s sociopathic personality:

As she was utterly devoid of true tenderness, so also was she devoid of conscience.

She did like reading, and especially the reading of poetry,—though even in this she was false and pretentious, skipping, pretending to have read, lying about books, and making up her market of literature for outside admiration at the easiest possible cost of trouble.

[T]he guiding motive of her conduct was the desire to make things seem to be other than they were. To be always acting a part rather than living her own life was to her everything.

 When there came to her any fair scope for acting, she was perfect. In the ordinary scenes of ordinary life, … she could not acquit herself well. There was no reality about her, and the want of it was strangely plain to most unobservant eyes. But give her a part to play that required exaggerated, strong action, and she hardly ever failed.

Could not she [Lizzie] be simple? Could not she act simplicity so well that the thing acted should be as powerful as the thing itself;—perhaps even more powerful?

This last quote recalls the famous (and often misattributed) remark that Celeste Holm recalled a fellow actor making:

“Honesty.  That’s the thing in the theater today.  Honesty … and   just as soon as I can learn to fake that, I’ll have it made.”

 Lastly, let me insert perhaps my favorite of all Trollope’s remarks about Lizzie:

She liked lies, thinking them to be more beautiful than truth. To lie readily and cleverly, recklessly and yet successfully, was, according to the lessons which she had learned, a necessity in woman and an added grace in man.

Perhaps a novelist can get away with (and indeed thrive on) creating lies that are “more beautiful than truth”.  But for a human navigating real life, it would seem a slippery slope indeed …

If you feel drawn to read The Eustace Diamonds, do not worry that it is part of Trollope’s “Palliser” series, but not the first one in the series.   These books are connected only by virtue of some common characters, but they play only minor roles in this novel.  I don’t think you will lose much by tackling this tome before having read the other Pallisers.**

I have up to now shied away from putting my “two cents” into the imposing online presence of Wikipedia, but I think I will shortly rectify a notable omission:  I will add The Eustace Diamonds, and Lizzie Eustace, to their article “Fictional portrayals of psychopaths”.


* See my Trollope reviews, for some novels of his with perhaps more overall allure.

** I will admit that this opinion of mine is based only upon the first three of the Pallisers (Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, and The Eustace Diamonds).  I have not gotten to the other three in the series, as yet.

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July 1, 2014 · 11:51 am