The Fall of the House of Pontifex

imgres.jpgImagine a decent textbook relating some of the less well-known events of the 17th century—the Thirty Years War, Oliver Cromwell, the Spanish Treasure ships, book-binding for fun and profit—add an old Dan Brown novel treatment and the script to National Treasure VII and stir well. After half-baking, turn the plot over an antique salver and serve. Voilá! Ex Libris by Ross King.

Is it a bad book? Well, I would say “No” because the author dishes out a great deal of historical data: enough that I have put the Thirty Years War and Oliver Cromwell on my reading list. But King uses the historical data (real or fictional) to weave an intricate story of intrigue centered on a missing text that would presumably have bumfuzzled the Pope and made all of Christianity cattywampus. Or at least that was the illusion the reader received from all the action in the book.

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Nobel Authors

I get the impression that few Americans have any idea who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Let’s make the test to name the last ten recipients of that honor … ask your friends … how are we doing?

Ten years is a good test but here is the list going back to the last American who was selected by the Nobel committee:

  • 2011 – Tomas Tranströmer
  • 2010 – Mario Vargas Llosa
  • 2009 – Herta Müller
  • 2008 – Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
  • 2007 – Doris Lessing
  • 2006 – Orhan Pamuk
  • 2005 – Harold Pinter
  • 2004 – Elfriede Jelinek
  • 2003 – John M. Coetzee
  • 2002 – Imre Kertész
  • 2001 – Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul
  • 2000 – Gao Xingjian
  • 1999 – Günter Grass
  • 1998 – José Saramago
  • 1997 – Dario Fo
  • 1996 – Wislawa Szymborska
  • 1995 – Seamus Heaney
  • 1994 – Kenzaburo Oe
  • 1993 – Toni Morrison

Does this list suggest that American Exceptionalism has come up short again? Do you suspect that some Americans are confused when Steven King, John Grisham and Dan Brown did not appear on the list?

I think the message is obvious:  if we want to read good contemporary literature we have to look outside of the United States and it might be a good idea to learn a couple of foreign languages too. This will not only lead to an expansion of our literary experience but will also help in understanding the ways of the world outside the box before states like Texas drive the nails into the lid and return us to the dark ages.