My Curious Reading


In actuality, do we need customer reviews?

People reportedly give a greater number of ratings in the four-star range than any other. We withhold a degree of our enthusiasm; we don’t five-star as often, and what makes a thing good, but not very good, fair but not good…we haven’t fully decided. We leave an unexplained gulf between fair and rotten, opinions that ought to stand further apart than “good” and “very good.”

Concerning literature, entertainment in general, the world retains a portion of its professional critics, qualified either by their education and luck in employment, or by having eked out a following, one blog post at a time.

Because I won’t star, because it’s essentially meaningless, but potentially misleading, and I don’t like down-rating people (I’ve read books I disliked but didn’t think were badly written. How do you star that?) I no longer review—but my choice would be to limit commentary to three hundred words, offer no quick visual whatever (no stars, no spoilers, no prejudices, no market for fakery); but ask the reviewer to answer a question of his/her choice. What made you want to read this book? What surprised you about this book?…etc.


Here’s a story: In the early years of the 20th century, England had a popular chain of restaurants called Lyon’s Corner House. I first encountered this milieu in Voyagers of the Titanic, by Richard Davenport-Hines (HarperCollins, 2012). He quotes, on page 121, the author Theodore Dreiser; Dreiser says, of a 1912 visit: “An enormous crowd of very commonplace people were there—clerks, minor officials, clergymen, small shop-keepers—and the bill of fare was composed of many homely dishes…” (Kidney pie, if you like.)

My research purpose had been to find “respectable work” for a woman, middle class, circa 1918. Instead of Lyon’s, I kept coming across a two-line advertisement, as follows:


THE QUEEN SAYS: “Is no less thrilling and ingenious than the author’s former stories of mystery and crime.”


The royal blurb would have been Alexandra’s. The book was The Corner House, by Fred Merrick White. White, as I learned from his Wikipedia entry (which seems to question whether he is important enough to have one) was an early twentieth century author of mystery, science fiction, even of a proto spy thriller. He was big in his day, serialized all over the place.

A sample of Edward VII’s wife’s taste in novels:


“She [the Countess Lelage] smashed her fan across her knee, she tore her long gloves into fragments. Dimly, in a mirror opposite, she saw her white ghastly face, and the stain of blood where she had caught her lips between her teeth.”

The Corner House, page 15 (R. F. Fenno & Company, 1906.)


There is good reason for writers who set their stories in history to read the popular novels of an earlier era, and not just for the fun of such un-inhibition. Our characters have to live in the world they knew. There were mass market books in Edwardian times, too, and leisure reading has always influenced opinion. Once the concept of serious novels for the intelligentsia came to serve as a benchmark, a countess couldn’t so freely react to a man’s confiding he’d proposed marriage to her governess.

Here’s another story: I was watching the TV show Restoration Home on YouTube. They flashed a document on the screen, a legal paper, one of the signatures a woman’s, her last name one from my family. I got onto the British Newspaper Archive, searched the late pre-independence eighteenth century (1750-1780) and found clusters of potential ancestors here and there: Chester, Taunton, Bath, another group near Leeds, one in Gloucestershire.

After reading a little of a Trowbridge genealogy (connections, not ancestors), specifically, The Trowbridge Genealogy, by Francis Bacon Trowbridge, “printed for the compiler”, 1908, it occurred to me I’ve never known anything about the Fosters. I found The Foster Genealogy, by Frederick Clifton Pierce, “published by the author”, 1899. It may mean nothing to me…however, Mr. Pierce’s patron, a man named Volney Foster, was an Illinoisan.

Now, bear with this thesis. Learning about your ancestors is an anti-totalitarian act. The totalitarian state becomes so by separating the individual from his/her sense of identity. The goal of the state is obedience, ignorance and dependence are the servants of obedience, individualism* and autonomy its enemies. The mechanisms of authoritarianism find their way into every entity of human civilization, so that, in the workplace, in the schools, in the community, in every minor bureaucracy, including the administration of charities, you find the roots of the totalitarian state—the wish to suppress differences and control information—which may under favorable conditions sprout (to extend the metaphor), blocking the sun with their weedy growth.

Dictatorships oppose freedom of religion—many have opposed religion itself—because a spiritual leader divides the subject’s loyalty, gives her alternate guidance, an alternate authority to turn to when she doesn’t trust the state. Anything that creates pride in the personal exists in opposition to the state. The dictator does not want you asking yourself, “What would Anacher the Great Forester of Flanders do?”

So discover your family history, take pride in it. There is only one you.

*I came across a canard that deserves a call-out: an article (“Big Bad Bully” Psychology Today, 1995) associates tolerance for bullies with America’s “rugged individualism”. No. Bullying is born in a group environment, and fueled by group behavior.

NYT article Good piece on ratings: NYT June 7, 2016 “Online Reviews? Researchers Give Them a Low Rating.”


2017, Stephanie Foster


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