Monday, October 29, 2007

Swedish? Well, of course

Meet Olof Rudbeck, the man who announced that he had discovered Atlantis in Sweden. He then excavated what he thought was its capital, and opened a museum to house its artifacts. He also claimed to have discovered the Kingdom of Hades (near the Arctic Circle) – and then sent a “scientific expedition” to explore this shadowy Underworld. By the end of his thirty year quest, which soon became one of the more unusual in modern history, Rudbeck believed that almost every major figure of ancient Greek and Norse mythology had either visited Sweden, or had actually been Swedish.

Before this search became a lifelong obsession, Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702) had been the first Swede to make a major scientific contribution. He discovered and explained the lymphatic system – as a nineteen-year old. He was working largely on his own (his supervisor was too busy in the alchemy lab). Later, when Rudbeck became a professor, he built an anatomy theater for dissections, and founded a botanical garden, which developed into one of the larger ones on the continent. He discovered two comets, using instruments he built himself. Among many other things, Rudbeck started an early postal service in Sweden, operated fencing and dancing school, and harnessed the town river to power several machines in his factory. One of his favorite things to do was to make fireworks, and he would long enjoy lighting up the night sky with his home-made rockets.

All of this extraordinary talent was brought to his search for the fabled lost civilization, and the “discoveries” poured in at an alarming rate. By 1702, Rudbeck had compiled some 2,500 pages of evidence for his theories – I read every word of the four tomes of Old Swedish and Latin (including his surviving correspondence). Rudbeck's theories are perhaps the most rigorously-argued and wildly speculative theories of ancient history ever to be accepted, for a time, among many contemporaries. Rudbeck was admired at the court of Louis XIV, proposed as a member of the Royal Society in London, and celebrated in cafes, salons and academies across the continent. Avid readers were Leibniz, Montesquieu, and Isaac Newton. Rudbeck's Atlantica is, among other things, a veritable curiosity cabinet of the seventeenth century (From my book Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Library #1: Rudbeck's Atlantica (1679)

One afternoon in the late nineties, I took a break from reading Olof Rudbeck’s letters at Lund University in southern Sweden, and went for a walk. Passing the cathedral and several cafes where I had spent many afternoons practicing my Swedish with patient friends, I entered an antiquarian bookstore. I browsed a bit, and then struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter. “Do you have anything on Olof Rudbeck?” I asked, hoping for something, or anything that I had not already read. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, looking down and shaking his head. But just to make sure, he went to the back to take a look. A few moments later, he returned with a first edition of Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica.

Above (right) is the title page to the Atlantica (Swedish Atland eller Manheim). Rudbeck wrote the text in Swedish and his colleague, the classicist and professor of eloquence Anders Norcopensis translated it into Latin. The page (left) discusses a few of Rudbeck’s 102 “proofs” why Atlantis must have been in Sweden. Later volumes would offer additional support for his theory. For more on the Atlantica, see post "My Library" or read more about it in Finding Atlantis.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Staggering Genius “Wise Enough To Do Good”

After winning the 2007 Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities this week, Dave Eggers will donate the proceeds ($250,000) to the innovative, nonprofit literary centers, the 826 Valencias (named after the first one in San Francisco’s Mission District). Each 826 focuses on teaching creative writing and expression to elementary, middle and high school students. "I think Dave has been a model of somebody wise enough to do good, other-centered things with his good fortune," George Saunders said at the award ceremony in Pittsburgh. At 37, Dave is the youngest recipient in the Heinz Award’s thirteen year history. Carolyn Kellogg reported in the LA Times, and also at her Pinky's Paperhaus.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What’s the Price of Being "the Rudest Man in Britain?”

Actually, according to Tudor expert David Starkey, who was given that honor by the Daily Mail, it’s worth an additional 100,000 pounds a year, and that’s almost certainly an under-estimate. Yes, indeed, yesterday Starkey received a CBE from the queen. Apparently she asked him if he planned to do any more documentaries. 'Yes Ma'am," he was quoted as quipping, "On you. It's quite complimentary."

Starkey is currently writing a biography of Henry VIII to be published in 2009. Expect a big splash, as it will be joined with an exhibit at the British Library and TV series, all of which will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the year the notorious Tudor monarch, all of 17-years old, began his reign.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

My Library

Inspired by librarything, I decided to start an occasional series of blog entries featuring “Random Books from My Library.” The first selection – let me say at the onset – is not random. The book was not chosen for its literary merits, either, or its appeal to collectors. It was chosen simply for its value to me. It’s a first edition of Olof Rudbeck’s Atlantica (1679).

Readers of Finding Atlantis will remember this as the first volume of Rudbeck’s massive attempt to prove that the fabled lost world of Atlantis was actually in Sweden (Yes, that Atlantis and yes, that Sweden.). And Rudbeck became so convinced of his theory that he would soon challenge any thinker to Europe to come to the north and prove him wrong. He would pay the expenses.

Olof Rudbeck was – I should add at this point – a pioneering physician who discovered the lymphatic system (as a teenager) and then became embroiled in a bitter priority dispute with Thomas Bartholin. He was also an anatomist, botanist, architect, engineer, surgeon, painter, astronomer, inventor, shipbuilder, singer, composer, mapmaker, fireworks maker, prankster and general loose cannon around town. All those skills and experiences were brought to his search, and it was one wild ride.

The work, at first only 900 pages, swelled to four and a half volumes and some 2,500 pages of “evidence” he found of the lost Atlantis of ancient Sweden. By the end of the thirty year quest, Rudbeck had believed that he had found not only Atlantis, but also virtually every major god, hero, or other figure of classical Greek and Norse mythology - and they were all Swedes. Mount Olympus, Asgard, and even the Kingdom of Hades were all in Sweden. I read every word of the bulky work, which prompted more than a few of my Swedish friends to wonder who was more obsessed, Rudbeck or me. At any rate, I will begin my library series with the Atlantica, very soon, that is, as soon as I have a decent photograph of the book to post.

The Empire Strikes Back

Historian Niall Ferguson, who was named one of “the world’s most influential people” by Time magazine (2004), will soon be blogging for the Financial Times (Link). This follows his appointment last month as a consultant to a £9.5 billion hedge fund with GLG Partners. He has written widely, including Virtual History (as editor), Paper and Iron, The Cash Nexus, The Pity of War, The House of Rothschild, Empire, Colossus, and most recently, The War of the World. "What's the point of having knowledge about modern history,” Ferguson once said in an interview (Robert Fulford), “if you confine yourself to writing monographs . . .?” I, for one, am looking forward to his new blog.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Debut Author, A Self-Published Book, and A Seven Figure Deal

Brunonia Barry has sold her first book, the self-published The Lace Reader to William Morrow in a seven-figure deal. It’s a thriller set in 1990s Salem, Massachusetts, her hometown, and deals with the experiences of a heroine, who like her family, can read the future by staring at patterns in lace. It’s a story, according to her website, “about trusting your own intuition, even if the rest of the world thinks you're crazy.” Here’s the Publishers Weekly review that generated the excitement that led to the book deal, and the selling of translation rights now across Europe.

Kudos to the “Leather-Jacketed Pied Piper”

Neil Gaiman’s co-production of his Stardust is now out with a cast that includes Robert de Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Ricky Gervais. Next month we have his Beowulf with Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie. Soon, too, expect a BBC version of Anansi Boys. Gaiman is understandably excited about this project with its African-Caribbean lore: “I don't think anybody,” he said, “has actually done a drama, the cast of which was almost completely black, in which the point of it was not that the cast was completely black." Anansi Boys is scheduled for November 17 on the BBC World Service. Interesting interview with Ian Burrell.

The Book that Got Away

When I used to teach a university honors seminar on The Ancient World, I enjoyed screening the Coen brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? This helped set the mood for the Odyssey, which, in my opinion, is one of the greatest adventure stories of say the last 2,600 years. I would have shown Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski, too, if I could have worked them in between Aeschylus and Euripides.

At any rate, one story that Joel and Ethan Coen have not been able to bring to the big screen is James Dickey’s novel, To the White Sea, which centers around a B-29 gunner downed in Japan at the end of World War II, who proceeds to walk from Honshu to Hokkaido. One other thing: the lead character does not know any Japanese, and there’s no dialogue after the first five minutes. Discussion with collaborator Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) and journalist Lev Grossman in the October 29 issue of Time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Historian Signs Bat for Baseball Hall of Fame

Historian Jacques Barzun, who will celebrate his 100th birthday next month on November 30, has signed a bat which will be presented to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. His words, "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” already adorn the hall.

Ever since I read his Columbia Ph.D dissertation, which was published in 1932 under the title The French Race: Theories of its Origins and their Social and Political Implications prior to the French Revolution, I have immensely enjoyed his books. Barzun is a national treasure. For more on the celebration, check out Leo's Wong’s blog, Barzun 100 and the Jacques Barzun Centenniel.

Two New Exciting History Titles

Laurence Bergreen follows the Venetian merchant Marco Polo along the Silk Road deep into Mongolia and China in Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. Bergreen's last book about Magellan, Over the Edge of the World, was wonderful, and Simon Winchester has already called this one “a classic portrait that now surely can never be bettered." Bergreen's Marco Polo will be released next week, and Matt Damon will be starring as the young Venetian in an upcoming Warner Bros film.

Joseph J. Ellis, Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College, also has a new book out at the end of this month, American Creation: Triumph and Tragedy at the American Founding. American Creation follows his previous works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, and National Book Award-winning American Sphinx. Both Publishers Weekly and Booklist have already given it stellar reviews.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Agent Zigzag

A few weeks ago, Tom Hanks (New Line Cinema) purchased rights to Ben MacIntyre’s new biography of the colorful conman and World War II double agent Eddie Chapman, Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal. They edged out Warner Brothers, in a short auction, in a seven-figure deal. Hanks and Gary Goetzman of Playtones will produce.
MacIntyre is author of several popular histories, including The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief, and Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche. Agent Zigzag, published by Harmony Books, draws on many newly declassified MI5 files and hit bookstores in the United States in September.

From Olof Rudbeck to Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is apparently toying with the idea of setting a coming of age tale of an American bumming around in Stockholm during the 1970s. Obviously, there is a great deal of potential here. The Swedish capital is, in many ways, a writer and filmmaker’s dream. I visited Stockholm many times in the 1990s, and lived there for a spell too when researching Finding Atlantis. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Go Quentin! While you’re at it, be sure to take the short trip out to “Old Uppsala” and see where the enigmatic Olof Rudbeck believed that he had found Atlantis.

A brief introduction to the life of Olof Rudbeck and his obsession with Atlantis – the subject of Finding Atlantis – can be found in my post here.

Finding Atlantis Goes to China

Finding Atlantis – the story of the flamboyant Olof Rudbeck (Sweden’s “Leonardo da Vinci”) and his adventurous hunt for the fabled lost civilization of Atlantis (which he believed he had found in Sweden!) – has been translated into several foreign languages. Thanks to Zhejiang People’s Publishing House, it’s now also out in Chinese.