#1: CODEX GIGAS
An early 13th century manuscript
At 165 pounds, 600 pages, over 3-feet-long and allegedly made from the skins of 160 donkeys, the CODEX GIGAS is the world’s most mysterious and valuable book.
CODEX GIGAS literally means the “Big Book”, and is also sometimes called the “Devil’s Bible” because of a particularly frightening full-page illustration of the Devil. It is so huge that it requires at least two people to carry it, and was once considered the eighth wonder of the world. The Codex places the Old and New Testaments alongside violent, holy incantations, and includes mystical medical formulas for everything from treating ailments such as fevers and epilepsy to resolving practical problems such as finding a thief. It is thought to have been created in the early 13th century at the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice in Bohemia (modern Czech Republic). Records in the Codex end in the year 1229. From 1477 to 1593, it was kept in the library of a monastery at Broumov, until it was taken to Prague in 1594 to become part of the collections of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. During the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, it was stolen by the Swedish army as plunder, and taken to Stockholm. The Codex is now located at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm, although it is not normally on display. In 2008, it was insured for $15.1 million, making it the most valuable book in the world, by far.
Watch a fascinating 5-part video abouth the CODEX GIGAS by National Geographic:
#2: NAKED LUNCH
by William S. Burroughs (1959)
NAKED LUNCH is probably the most bizarre book ever to become a recognized “classic” of modern literature. Extremely controversial, because of its depraved subject matter and abundant use of profanity, the book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles. It is one of the most recent books to have been banned in an American obscenity trial, but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Court found that the book did not violate obscenity statutes because it had “some social value”. NAKED LUNCH was included in Time Magazine‘s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”.
William Seward Burroughs II (1914-1997), also known by his pen name “William Lee”, was a novelist, poet, essayist and spoken word performer. He was born into a wealthy family in St. Louis, Missouri, was a grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Corporation, and began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studying English and anthropology, but dropped out and spent the next twenty years working a variety of odd jobs. Much of Burroughs’s literary work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict. Burroughs was a leading figure of the “Beat Generation”, and is considered to be one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the twentieth century. Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays.
NAKED LUNCH is difficult to describe in terms of any coherent plot. Burroughs stated that its chapters are intended to be read in any order. The novel’s main character, a junkie named William Lee, assumes various aliases in a disjointed series of drug-fueled adventures in the US, Mexico and Tangiers (based upon Burroughs’ own real-life experiences in these places, his addiction to various drugs and his wildly unconventional sexual exploits) and in hallucinational Freeland, Interzone and Annexia.
Beginning in the 1960’s, film makers struggled with how to adapt NAKED LUNCH to the big screen, and it was deemed “unfilmable”. In 1991, Canadian director David Cronenberg took up the challenge again. Rather than attempt a direct adaptation of the novel, Cronenberg took a few elements from the book, combined them with biographical elements from Burroughs’ life, and created a fiction-biography hybrid about the writing of the book. The film was presented and marketed as NAKED LUNCH, starring actor Peter Weller.
Find William Burroughs’ books in a library near you at Worldcat.
Buy William Burroughs’ books at Amazon.com.
#3: BRAVE NEW WORLD
by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Aldous Huxley was brilliant, eccentric and spookily prescient. His 1932 novel Brave New World explores a utopian future where “Community, Identity, Stability” is the motto of a totalitarian world state, and where everyone consumes daily doses of soma to fight depression, where all babies are created in laboratories, where sexual promiscuity is encouraged and where the most popular form of entertainment is the “Feelie,” a virtual reality media that stimulates the senses of sight, hearing, and touch. In 1958, Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, a non-fiction work, in which he considered whether the world had moved toward or away from his vision of the future in the 1932 novel. He concluded that the world was becoming like Brave New World much faster than he had originally thought. That Huxley was able to predict so many social and technological inventions is very eerie and bizarre.
Brave New World was “adapted” into a really awful made-for-TV movie in 1998, starring Peter Gallagher and Leonard Nimoy. It is now being remade into a feature Hollywood film, supposedly true to the novel and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Ridley Scott, and tentatively scheduled to be released sometime in 2011.
Aldous Leonard Huxley (July 22, 1894 – November 22, 1963) was one of the most prominent members of England’s famous Huxley family. He spent the later part of his life in the United States, living in Los Angeles from 1937 until his death in 1963. Aldous Huxley was a vocal humanist and pacifist, and was interested in spiritual subjects such as parapsychology and philosophical mysticism. He also advocated the taking of psychedelic drugs. By the end of his life, Huxley was considered a leader of modern thought, and an intellectual of the highest rank. On the verge of death, he asked to be given a dose of LSD.
Find Aldous Huxley’s books in a library near you at Worldcat.
Buy Aldous Huxley’s books on Amazon.com.
#4: BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS
by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1973)
Breakfast of Champions is a bleakly humorous trip through America circa 1973, with Vonnegut acting as a Virgil-like narrator. The novel follows its main character, auto-dealing solid-citizen Dwayne Hoover, as he descends into madness. As Dwayne cracks, then crumbles, Breakfast of Champions shows the effects that Dwayne’s dementia has on the web of characters surrounding him. “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.” said Vonnegut. Health versus sickness, humanity versus inhumanity – both sets of ideas bounce through this challenging and funny book. It’s doesn’t have much of a plot, but it’s a vehicle for Vonnegut to air his unique opinions on America, sex, war, love, and all of his other pet topics.
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was one of America’s most influential writers of the 20th century. Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier and prisoner of war in WWII had a profound influence on literary works. Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944. While held as a prisoner of war at Dresden, Germany, he experienced firsthand the horrific firebombing of that city in February 1945. He wrote fourteen novels, including bestsellers Cat’s Cradle (1963), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Breakfast of Champions (1973), blending satire, dark comedy, and science fiction.
Vonnegut offered some very interesting advice on how to write effectively:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Find Kurt Vonnegut’s books in a library near you at Worldcat.
Buy Kurt Vonnegut’s books on Amazon.com.
#5: STALKING IRISH MADNESS
by Patrick Tracey (2008)
A friend, who is amused by my passion for all things Irish, recently gave me an interesting book to read. At first, I put the book aside, assuming that the gift was a back-handed dig at my Irish-centric obsessions. After all, the title of this book is quite off-putting.
This autobiographical family memoir by Boston journalist and author Patrick Tracey is the story of one Irish-American’s search for the origins of the schizophrenia that has plagued his family for five generations in Ireland and America. Rather than subjecting the reader to a depressing journey through inter-generational insanity, Patrick Tracey explores his “family secret” through an often amusing, and always informative, travelogue through the Irish countryside, history, mythology and psychology. Beyond the original premise of his journey, Tracey’s book also examines the current, conflicted Irish perspective on Irish-Americans, the “in’s and out’s” of life in Irish campgrounds and the keys to finding people and places in a land where road signs and directions are often unfathomable.
Of course, the greatest mystery that Tracey explores is schizophrenia itself, a misunderstood medical condition that is frighteningly common among all nationalities. A disorder that suddenly traps young adults in perpetual waking nightmares, full of loud voices and sensory hallucinations, the causes and treatment of schizophrenia remain elusive. The information that Tracey provides about this particularly tragic medical mystery was surprising to me, disabusing me of some commonly-held misconceptions.
Anyone familiar with South Florida’s downtowns and urban parks knows that schizophrenics are a common sight here. “Mainstreaming” and the closing of most mental hospitals here and across America have resulted in thousands of schizophrenics being put out onto the streets to fend for themselves. After reading Tracey’s book, I can’t ever look at these “street people” with casual annoyance again.
Visit the STALKING IRISH MADNESS website at: http://stalkingirishmadness.com
Find STALKING IRISH MADNESS in a library near you on Worldcat.