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Holiday Book Bonanza ’09:
Anatoly Liberman

It has become a holiday tradition on the OUPblog to ask our favorite people about their favorite books.  This year we asked authors to participate (OUP authors and non-OUP authors).  For the next two weeks we will be posting their responses which reflect a wide variety of tastes and interests, in fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.  Check back daily for new books to add to your 2010 reading lists.  If that isn’t enough to keep you busy next year check out all the great books we have discovered during past holiday seasons: 2006, 2007, 2008 (US), and 2008 (UK).

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday.  Below he shares his favorite book and his favorite children’s book.

These notes are about a book that brightened my adolescence and even youth. It is Martin Eden by Jack London. Considering Jack London’s world-wide appeal while he was alive and his undying popularity in Europe, it is puzzling how little he is read in the English speaking world. The Call of the Wild and occasionally White Fang are shoved down the throats of children between 12 and 15, and this is about all. Yet he remains one of the best story tellers in modern literature. Most of his novels deserve to be ignored, but Martin Eden is an exception. The book is autobiographical only in part and should not be taken for a story of the author’s life (though he predicted his end with heart breaking accuracy).

Martin is a sailor who falls in love with a girl from a thoroughly boring middle class family. Meeting this pale female, as one of his friends later characterized her, changes his life. He realizes his uncouthness, embarks on a process of self-education, reads voraciously (everything from Shakespeare to philosophical treatises), and begins to write. As time goes on, he writes better and better, but no journal accepts his work. A few exceptions don’t matter. Then suddenly his booklet containing an attack on the Symbolists becomes a bestseller, and Martin, like Byron, wakes up to discover that he is famous. Those who let him starve while he was collecting refusals now feel honored to be able to invite him to dinner. But both fame and wealth have come too late. I won’t tell you why, for fear of ruining the suspense with which you may or will read this book (if you have not yet read it, and you probably have not: so far, in this country I have met only professors of American literature who have any knowledge of Martin Eden). Not only is the plot breathtakingly interesting. The American scene at the beginning of the 20th century is also depicted with true brilliance: the journals, their editors (young and old), the “lower depths” (the picture of the laundry “Hot Springs” should have become a perennial classic), and the hypocrisy of bourgeois life, all that presented through Jack London’s eyes, so that we encounter the genuine feeling of an uneducated working class girl as opposed to that of his beloved, are exposed to the cult of physical strength and the superman (Martin is one), enjoy his Spenserian predilections, and laugh at an unexpected picture of contemporary socialism (it comes as a surprise from the author of The Iron Heel and The People of the Abyss).

With age, Jack London stops being one’s idol. I first read Martin Eden when I was twelve and then reread it so many times that I still remember it almost by heart. I even turned to Herbert Spenser (Jack London’s god) and William E. Henley (“that noble spirit”) because I learned about them from the book, and wrote a long poem, whose title is only mentioned in one of the episodes. This novel is part of me and will remain such as long as I live. Enjoy it, and may the snobs who look down on Jack London sneer. It’s their loss.

I have too many favorites to choose from. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Mowgli, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, Dorothy, and a host of others have accompanied me as long as I can remember. Some of them were invented for the entertainment and edification of grown-ups, but there is no greater reward for a book than to become part of children’s reading. It guarantees immortality. Tarzans and Pinkertons provide amusement to teenagers and fade when their fans mature (assuming that they do). Not so with H.C. Andersen’s heroes and heroines, Alice, Winnie the Pooh, the animals from The Wind in the Willows, or Janusz Korczak’s King Matt the First. The older we become, the better we understand the wisdom of those books. They grow with us.

Here I’ll say a few words about a book that appeared long after I left children’s pursuits behind. In my opinion, it is one of very few masterpieces written for young readers in the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps Stuart Little and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole… may compete for the second and third prizes. I mean Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson-on-the-Roof. English translators were not sure whether to keep two s’s in the middle of the man’s name, so that the book exists with Karlsson and Karlson as its second principal character. Nor was it easy to translate the Swedish boy’s pet name lillebror, literally “little brother,” for he is the youngest sibling of three, and chose to retain it rather than saying something like Little One (compare Stuart Little).

This is a story about a boy who is six, going on seven, and whose greatest dream is to have a puppy. But his parents refuse to get one, so instead of the puppy a little middle-aged trickster bearing the most undistinguished name (Karlsson) appears. Allegedly, he lives in a little house on the roof. The two have numerous perilous and hilarious adventures. The beauty of the story is that Lindgren resorts to a trick memorable from the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Karlsson is absolutely real, but at the same time it is Lillebror himself, with his infantile arrogance and egoism, an adult with a boy’s whims and predilections (not another mawkish Peter Pan!). A child has trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy, and Lindgren explored the gray area between the two with tact and wit. She also knew that a child’s consuming passions are not to be treated lightly. Of course, a book is good only if it is written well, and the language of this book is wonderful. Lindgren also risked bringing out a continuation of her tale, and as happens most rarely, Part 2 is as good as Part 1. None of her numerous other books can touch Karlsson-on-the-Roof. Pippi is more famous, but I think it will be forgotten, along with Harry Potter and other celebrities, while Lillebror will survive us a

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