Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thomas Jefferson’s Book Stand Was an Early Version of Computer Tabs

In the middle of a writing project --especially one that involves research-- I’ll sometimes find that I have what seems like a billion tabs opened on my laptop. The ability to move quickly back and forth between different reference items is crucial to the process.

Thomas Jefferson must have used my methods. Among his inventions (which include a secret decoder ring of sorts, a travel version of a printing press and a macaroni-making machine) is a book stand, designed to hold five opened books simultaneously.

The stand also rotates, and when not in use it all slides together into a simple wooden box. It’s hard not to imagine Jefferson working on a little something --the Declaration of Independence, say-- while flipping between John Locke and Thomas Paine, maybe giggling at some Rabelais (the thinking man’s Mad magazine) when he needed a breather.

Jefferson never received a patent for any of his inventions (Lincoln is the only president with that credential), but it’s clear that the book stand is the type of thing that can only be designed by someone who cares about their reading and writing and would do anything to streamline them.

Monticello offers a reproduction of the Jefferson book stand (pictured above), or you can have one custom made from this seller on Etsy for about half the price.

If you’re looking for the macaroni machine, though, you’re on your own.

How do you organize your reference materials? Multiple tabs? Index cards? Whirling Jeffersonian book stand? Weigh in via the comments section.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The 10 Best Books Written by Muppets

Jim Henson’s birthday was yesterday, which turned anyone with a soul’s thoughts all Muppety. While most Muppet achievements were confined to television sets and movie screens, the cast of characters also made an impact on the book world.

A gaggle of Muppet characters have ostensibly put paw, flipper or hoof to keyboard with publishing success. (Did the Muppets really write these books themselves? Well, if I’m supposed to believe that Pamela Anderson wrote a novel and Bristol Palin had no help with her memoir, then I say: Yes, absolutely.)

This list includes books by both Muppet Show Muppets and Sesame Street characters, and it was a tad tough to narrow down. The Amazing Mumford’s foray into science with his book on bones, Bert’s Hall of Great Inventions and Elmo’s unabashedly-titled Balls! weren’t easily eliminated, mind you.

The 10 Best Books Written by Muppets

#10 One Frog Can Make a Difference: Kermit’s Guide to Life in the ‘90s by Kermit the Frog

Though the title is dated, don’t discount the wisdom of a frog who received an honorary doctorate of Amphibious Letters from Southampton College in 1996. He even dispenses advice for writers: "It's all kinds of simple: Just don't take yourself too seriously and don't listen to experts (including pigs), and you've pretty much got it." 

#9 The Muppet Picnic Cookbook by Jim Henson’s Muppets

This rare and elusive cookbook was only briefly published by Hallmark, so if you can find a copy, guard it like your Mamaw’s stew-stained recipe cards. Featuring recipes from Muppet Show cast members (Animal’s Zesty Baked Beans, Kermit’s Swamp Salad), it also contains what might well be the only printed copy of a Swedish Chef recipe. His Barbecued Filet of Sole calls for two sneakers, but allows for the substitution of broiler chickens.

#8 Miss Piggy’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces from the Kermitage Collection by Miss Piggy (Edited by Henry Beard)

Miss Piggy has two entries on this list for good reason: she has more books than any other character. The Suzanne Somers of Muppet celebrity publishing, Miss Piggy goes well beyond Somers’ moody poetry and menopause musings. A case in point is this brilliantly curated art collection, containing Botticelli’s The Birth of You Know Who (pictured), Whistler’s Weirdo and Rembrandt’s Arisfroggle contemplating the bust of a Twerp.

#7 Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, Miss Piggy's Rules or The Diva Code by Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy's Guide to Life is out-of-print, but her other self-help books The Diva Code and The Rules spoof Miss Piggy’s Rules contain similar advice in a glamorously self-indulgent style previously matched only by Miss Eartha Kitt. If you need to know when a karate chop is better than a kiss or which furs to pack, this one’s for you.

#6 Fozzie Bear’s Big Book of Side Splitting Jokes by Fozzie Bear

File this one next to Henny Youngman’s Giant Book of Jokes. The vaudevillian is the master behind lines like “I don’t approve of belly dancers. Why can’t they dance on the floor like everyone else?” Can’t find a copy? Follow Fozzie on Facebook.

#5 Oscar the Grouch’s Alphabet of Trash by Oscar the Grouch

The number of ABC books out there could probably fill a billion empty Borders stores, but from Anne Geddes’ babies-in-bumblebee-outfits to Richard Scarry’s bunnies-acting-like-people, alphabet books have always been a bit precious. Not so with Oscar’s ABC, where D is for dust and E is for eggshells. Full of crummy stuff for those who love crummy stuff.

#4 It’s Hard Out Here for a Shrimp by Pepe the King Prawn

In the vein (Get it? Vein?) of fellow cast members guides to life, the Malaga, Spain-born prawn dishes advice on “the womens.” Tip: the whole thing is better if you read it in Pepe’s voice. (Example: “Never ask out the woman who just finished talking to your ex-girlfriend, okay?”)

#3 Before You Leap: A Frog’s Eye View of Life’s Greatest Lessons by Kermit the Frog

When you tire of Lao Tzu or Emerson, it would serve you well to seek the wisdom of one of entertainment’s greatest thinkers. Seriously. The first of his family to leave the swamp, Kermit overcame his humble beginnings to become a hard-working reporter (and the best-looking one before we had Anderson Cooper) and ultimately a star. 

#2 How to Be a Grouch by Oscar the Grouch

Oscar’s alphabet was just a warm-up. All the good stuff is in here, with Oscar dispensing secrets for becoming a grouch yourself. One of my favorite tips is the advice to sleep with rocks in your bed, with your head hanging over onto the floor, so you’ll wake up good and grouchy. Oscar also clues us in on what grouches eat: pickle splits, chunky fish ice cream or hot beef stew with chocolate gravy in a melon, for example.

#1 The Monster at the End of This Book by Grover

The book may be credited to Jon Stone, but the entire thing is in first person, so this is clearly an as-told-to credit. If you were lucky enough to grow up with this book, congratulate yourself, because that means you were probably also lucky enough to have a parent who read it to you in Grover’s voice. Grover’s pleas for you to stop turning the pages are among the most melodramatic in all literature, and most people’s first experience with the breaking of the fourth wall --or whatever the literary equivalent is. (Lesser known is Lovable, Furry Old Grover’s Resting Places --also an interactive piece worth a look for young ‘uns.)

Easton Press needs to get on this one. I’d shell out for a leatherbound in a heartbeat.

There are a few titles I'd like to see from the Muppets: a full Swedish Chef cookbook, for example, a tell-all bio from Janice of the Electric Mayhem and a manifesto from Sam the Eagle. What would you like to see?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Chinua Achebe vs. 50 Cent Legal Battle Is Bogus

You may have read about the legal battle between Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe and rapper 50 Cent. If not, the quick version is that Achebe took offense at the title of the rapper’s upcoming autobiographical movie: Things Fall Apart --the same as Achebe’s most famous piece of fiction.

Achebe’s legal team won, and the movie has been retitled. I find it interesting that the case didn’t go to court. If it had, there’s a likely chance a judge would have allowed 50 Cent’s use of Things Fall Apart, for one simple reason: titles can’t be copyrighted.

It’s true. While in some cases titles can be trademarked (franchises that go beyond books, or series titles), copyright law deems that the titles alone of things like books or songs --unlike their contents--  can’t be copyrighted.

That’s why I can say I’ve read Twilight. Not the Stephenie Meyer hoop-de-doo, but Elie Wiesel’s. It’s why there are at least a dozen romance novels called Everlasting. And it’s why “Crazy” is an entirely different song depending on whether you’re listening to Patsy Cline, Aerosmith or Gnarls Barkley.

To make matters more ridiculous, Achebe’s title comes from “The Second Coming,” a poem by Yeats (and one of my favorites). Achebe wasn’t alone in mining Yeats for titles. In fact, so many authors have taken their titles from the same poem that a friend of mine jokingly refers to “The Second Coming” as “that poem made out of book titles.”

Just a few titles off the top of my head gleaned from the very same bit o’ Yeats:

The Second Coming by Walker Percy
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
What Rough Beast by William Watkins
The Blood Dimmed Tide by Rennie Airth
The Widening Gyre by Robert Parker

And lest you think “Well, that’s all fine and good, but Achebe’s only worried about the specific phrase “things fall apart"...Things Fall Apart has been borrowed from Yeats by more people for more titles than any other piece of Yeats ever.

Things Fall Apart is the title of several works of both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the name of a little-known post-apocalyptic novel and a book about Iraqui civil war. It’s the name of both a Star Trek novel and an issue of The Justice League. 

Maybe Achebe’s legal team is only concerned about non-book use of the title, then? In that case, they need to send cease-and-desists to the web comic Things Fall Apart, and stop NBC and ABC from selling or re-running episodes of The West Wing or Ugly Betty, both of which have episodes called “Things Fall Apart.” The BBC is also in trouble.

80's songstress Cristina Monet recorded a song called "Things Fall Apart," as did indie rockers Built to Spill and London band Serafina (plus other folks you've never heard of.) The Roots won a Grammy in 1999 for a song from their guessed it: Things Fall Apart.


The bottom line is: as well-known as Achebe’s novel is around the world, the phrase is not copyrightable, and has a distinct life of its own, starting with Yeats, that reaches far beyond Achebe.

50 Cent’s team apparently offered $1 million for the title, which was turned down. In the instances cited above, no one offered anyone anything. If they had, it should have been offered to the ghost of Yeats.

Several Internet commenters seem to agree on one thing: Yeats would have taken the money.

What do you think? Should 50 Cent be allowed to use the title Things Fall Apart like pretty much everyone else has?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Guardian Designates Oct. 7th 'Talk Like a Beat Day'


The sun has barely set on Talk Like a Pirate Day, yet the UK’s Guardian is touting Talk Like a Beat Day. Set for October 7th, the staff admits that it’s their own invention, but they’re dead set on spreading the news in hopes of a latter-day --if for one day only-- beatnik revival.

October 7th is the date of the first official “Beat happening” in San Francisco, when Jack Kerouac used a wine jug to pound out an accompaniment to Allen Ginsberg’s recitations from “Howl.”

Gregory Corso may have said that “Three writers do not a generation make,” but the Beat Generation’s legacy moved far beyond the literary. The term “beatnik” --a portmanteau of ‘sputnik’ and ‘Beat,’ started being applied to anyone out of the mainstream, and, typical of the late ‘50s, potentially communist.

The stereotype became ubiquitous: a guy with a beret, goatee and a set of bongos hanging out with a long-haired chick in black leotards. Heavy, right?

The Beat invasion eventually reached even the Beverly Hillbillies, and for anyone who wants to skip the required reading, the episode “Clampetts a Go-Go” may be the best precis on Beat philosophy ever written:

Jethro: I’ve been goin’ to cool school
Granny: What kind of a fool school is cool school?

Jethro: It’s real groovy Granny. Why, already today I learned that I am one of the angry young men. How bout that?

Granny: Whatcha angry about?

Jethro: Well, uh, let’s see, uh. Oh, we got questions to ask about life, like uh, who am I, and where I'd come from, and where am I goin’. Them is angry young man questions.

Granny: Well, now you’re gonna get some angry old woman answers. You are Jethro Bodine, you just come outta there, and you're goin’ home to do your chores!

For those who’d like to pepper October 7th with more than a few “daddy-o’s” and “hep cats,” here’s a handy guide to beatnik slang.

For digging a little deeper, some recommended reading:

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
  • Howl by Allen Ginsberg
  • A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • The First Third by Neal Cassady
  • Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution by Brenda Knight

Don't forget to mark your calendar for Talk Like a Beat Day. Leave your favorite Beat expressions and book recommendations in the comments section --unless you're a square.