Tag Archives: classics

A Visitor’s Guide to Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell

This article was written by Matt Staggs and originally appeared on Unbound Worlds. Divine Comedy author Dante Alighieri died on this day in 1321. In honor of the great poet’s life, we offer this short guide to the nine circles of Hell, as described in Dante’s Inferno. First Circle: Limbo The first circle is home to the unbaptized and virtuous pagans. It’s not Heaven, but as far as Hell goes, it isn’t too bad: It’s the retirement community of the afterlife. Hippocrates and Aristotle will be your neighbors, so any attempt at small talk will probably turn into Big Talk in a hurry. You’ll have television, but all of the channels will be set to CSPAN. Second Circle: Lust The wind-buffeted second circle of Hell is the final destination of the lustful and adulterous — basically anyone controlled by their hormones. Cleopatra and Helen of Troy were among its most famous residents during Dante’s day, but you can expect this place to be full of angsty teenagers and reality television stars by the time you arrive. Third Circle: Gluttony Today’s forecast calls for plenty of icy rain and slush — a “wintery mix” for all eternity. You know those people whose Instagram feeds are full of carefully lit photos of artfully arranged entrees? You’ll probably find them here, plus anyone whose response is “I’m kind of a foodie” when asked where they’d like to go eat. Fourth Circle: Greed This section of Hell is reserved for the money-grubbers and overly materialistic among us. According to Dante, those condemned to the fourth circle spend eternity fighting over money and valuables, so be prepared to meet all of your distant cousins who show up out of nowhere with empty U-Haul trucks moments the moment after a well-to-do great aunt or uncle dies. Fifth Circle: Anger Dante tells us that the wrathful and angry souls of this circle spend eternity waging battle on the River of Styx. If playing pirates forever sounds like your idea of a good time, then the fifth circle can’t be too bad. Be prepared to hoist the Jolly Roger and go to war against that one guy in line who yelled at your favorite barista, and the road rage-possessed driver who very nearly rear-ended you last week. Sixth Circle: Heresy Dante wrote that heretics spent eternity entombed in flaming crypts in the sixth circle, but heresy is kind of an obscure sin in modern times. There’s probably plenty of vacancies now, so let’s fill this one with anyone who goes bananas whenever “their” movie franchise or comic book changes in a way they don’t like. The air in the sixth circle is probably choked with ashes and anguished cries of “[X] ruined my childhood!” Seventh Circle: Violence I’ll be honest with you, dear reader: Dante was being kind of a dick when it came to designing this level. It is composed of three rings. The outer ring is filled with blood and fire and reserved for murderers and thugs. That’s fine, but it gets sketchier from here. The middle ring is where, according to Dante, suicide victims go. They’re transformed into trees and fed upon by harpies (which I guess are somehow related to termites?). The inner ring, a place of burning sand, is reserved for “blasphemers” and “sodomites.” Like I said, Dante was a bit of a dick. How about we ret-con this one (Sorry, residents of the sixth circle…) and reserve it for the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church? If that makes me kind of a dick, well, I’ll live with that. Eighth Circle: Fraud The eighth circle is subdivided into ten trenches. We won’t get into the specifics of who goes where (Too bad, Dante. That’s what you get for making me write abut the seventh circle) but here you’ll find con artists of all sorts. Dante described ditches, but I prefer to think of the eight circle as being a giant cubicle farm full of phone and internet fraudsters. Welcome, so-called Nigerian princes and supposed “IRS agents” who insist on being paid in iTunes cards. Ninth Circle: Treachery The final circle is a frozen wasteland occupied by history’s greatest traitors. So … Washington, DC in February?
Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

So You Want to Make a Deal With the Devil

This article was written by Matt Staggs and originally appeared on Unbound Worlds. In Simon R. Green’s From a Drood to a Kill, a deal with the devil draws supernatural fixer Eddie Drood into a deadly contest where the winner takes all, body and soul. Eddie wasn’t the one who made the deal with the devil: It was someone else, but he’s got to pick up all the pieces. It’s a great story, and a fun variant on a familiar theme. (How fun? Like, occult James Bond fun.) You’d think that at this point just about everyone would know that a contract with Satan isn’t going to work out the way they want it to, but people keep doing it. Sure, there are exceptions to the rules (John Constantine, I’m looking at you), but chances are that anyone that enters into a bargain with the Great Beast is going to be ruined in the end. But say you want to do it, anyway. Even if you think you’re lucky and smart enough to beat Beelzebub at his own game, selling your soul isn’t as easy as starting an auction on eBay. At least it isn’t anymore. The first thing you’re going to have to decide is which devil you want to do business with. I know you might have heard that there’s just one devil, but medieval demonologists believed there were gazillions of demons and devils just waiting to get their hooks into tasty, tasty human souls. DIAL-A-DEMON You could waste a bunch of time thumbing through ancient texts in some wizard’s library in a dungeon somewhere, but when it comes to finding a fiend in a hurry, I prefer Michelle Belanger’s The Dictionary of Demons. This compendium of cacodaemons is like Hell’s Yellow Pages, and if there’s a demon or devil, chances are it’s in there. You can flip through at random like that time you needed a bail bondsman in Vegas (What, you didn’t think I knew?), but your best bet is going to be searching by area of expertise. (Devils, like doctors, have specialties.) It’s not going to do you very much good to call up Bathin, the demon of herbs and precious stones, when you really just want a new ride. For that you want Saltim, who can gift wizards with flying thrones. Don’t waste your time or their’s: It’s busy in Hell, especially during the presidential election. BLOOD RED TAPE Presuming you’ve found the right devil, you’re still going to need to do all the paperwork. Yes, as you can imagine, Hell is big on paperwork and bureaucracy in general. It’s the national pastime in the Underworld, so you’d better do your homework (also invented by demons). As hard as it is to believe, it’s just about impossible to find an attorney who works with demonic contract law, so for proper advice, we’re going to have to turn to people who allegedly made a deal with the devil. PARTNERS IN PERFIDY: robert_johnson Robert Johnson (1911 – 1938) The undisputed master of the Delta Blues is rumored to have met the devil at the crossroads to bargain for his soul. Johnson got his wish and became a famous bluesman, but died at only 27 years of age. The exact location of Johnson’s crossroads is unknown, although some people suggest the intersection of US 61 and US 49 in Clarksdale, MS. That’s as good a place to begin your search as any. If you don’t find the devil, there’s still a good chance you’ll find God: Morgan Freeman is a Clarksdale native, and is not infrequently spotted hanging out at his Ground Zero Blues Club. Expert Advice: Take a trip to the Delta and look for the devil at the crossroads. At worst you’ll have some incredible food and enjoy some great music. a_book_of_new_england_legends_and_folk_lore_in_prose_and_poetry-_illustrated_by_f-_t-_merrill_1884_14742933106 Jonathan Moulton (1726 – 1787) Revolutionary War hero Brigadier General Jonathan Moulton took trolling to an epic level when he sold his soul for an agreement that the devil would fill his boots with gold every day. Unafraid to try the father of lies at his own game, Moulton cut the soles out of his boots and placed them on the top of his chimney. After Old Scratch came along to fill up Moulton’s boots and found that he couldn’t, he burned Moulton’s house down. Expert Advice: There’s no way you’re getting a square deal out of the devil, and you’re going to Hell anyway. You might as well try to pull one over on him. paganini_by_kersting_detail Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840) This Italian violin virtuoso was gifted enough that people just assumed that he had made a deal with the devil. The rumors dogged him until the day he died — and after. Following his death in 1840, the Catholic church in Genoa refused to give him a Christian burial. Is there any truth to his association with Satan? Maybe, maybe not, and It’s unlikely the devil will give you a straight answer. Expert Advice: Even if you don’t make a deal with the devil, you might as well let people think you did. It’s obviously good publicity if we’re still talking about it nearly 2 centuries later. Just clear everything up with your priest, first. michael_pacher_004-2 Theophilus of Adana (? – 535 AD) Unhappy with his lot in life as an archdeacon in the church, Theophilus decided to explore his options as a free agent. He hired a necromancer to summon the devil, who offered Theophilus a position as a bishop in the church in exchange for his soul. Theophilus signed a contract in blood and was promoted shortly thereafter. Apparently Theophilus looked at his chances as a mole in God’s operation and decided they weren’t so good. He took the contract to another bishop and asked for his help. The bishop ripped up the contract and Theophilus died on the spot … supposedly out of joy to have gotten out of the deal, but it’s not like he’s around to ask. Expert Advice: Whether you’re getting in or getting out of a deal with the devil, it’s good to have a professional at your side. You might have a hard time finding a necromancer these days, but there’s always Craigslist. NEXT STEPS: Grab your guitar or violin, hang a pair of boots over your chimney, put your bishop’s phone number on speed dial, and grab the next flight out to Clarksdale. Chances are this won’t end the way you want it to, but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Presuming you do make contact with the devil, then you’re probably going to want to start thinking of ways to get out of your contract. Here are a couple of maybe-tried and not-so-true methods. Fiddle Contest: Apparently, Satan can’t resist a good old fashioned fiddlin’. See this instructional video. Sell Out Fido: Famous English Folk Hero Jack O’Kent tricked the devil into building him a bridge by promising him the soul of the first person to cross the bridge. He tossed a bone across it and went running after it. Tough luck, Spot. If All Else Fails, Become a Glutton for Punishment In “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror IV”, Homer sells his soul to Satan Flanders for a donut. Once he gets to Hell, Satan attempts to punish him by stuffing him with donuts. Rather than being horrified, Homer is delighted. Clearly the devil underestimated Homer’s appetite. Chances are that the devil isn’t going to offer you any breakfast pastries, though. Maybe you should develop an appetite for sulfur and brimstone now. Are You Really Sure You Want to do This? We’ve had fun here, but It is my final recommendation that you do not pursue a deal with the devil. He and his ilk are veteran tricksters who have spent many millennia bargaining with foolhardy mortals who thought themselves clever, only to wind up spending eternity slow-roasting over a pit of flaming viper venom. Nevertheless, if you’ve read this far then nothing I could say would likely steer you from this course. However, in good conscience, I cannot let you proceed without providing these examples of supposed deals with devils that went terribly wrong. Pic: “The Devil and the Statue” (1901)/(PD)

Banned Books Week: Crossword Puzzle

Banned Books Week is here! Wonderful classic and contemporary books have been banned and challenged over the years, so this week, we are celebrating our right to read. Take a stab at our Banned Books Week Crossword and see how well you know about incendiary literature! Check back at the end of the week for the answer key. In the meantime share your thoughts on social media using #booknerdcrossword. Click for full-size image and to print out.  crossword Learn more about Banned Books Week here.

Read It Forward and Litographs have teamed up for a special giveaway!

Read It Forward has teamed up with literary clothing company, Litographs, for a special giveaway! litograph-hero-rif Enter to win 1 of 5 prize packs that each include a gorgeous new edition of a classic. Thanks to our friends at Litographs, the winners will each take home a clothing item (tote bag or t-shirt) made entirely from the words of the book it depicts. Deadline for entry is 11:59 P.M. (Eastern Time) on June 29, 2015, so enter now

Celebrating Saul Bellow on the 100th anniversary of his birth

Today, June 10th 2015, would have been Saul Bellow’s 100th birthday. In celebration of his of his life, we reached out to Beena Kamlani, Bellow’s editor, to reflect on the writer’s life and influence. Bellow @ 100: Some Reminiscences and Thoughts To read Bellow is to be struck. As by a meteor, a thunderbolt, or something from some indefinable source. You are suddenly in possession of knowledge that comes from elsewhere—as if gifted. Stunned and blessed—how often does this happen to us in our lives? I speak from experience. I read him when I was eight. The book was Herzog. We preferred to read because TV in Bombay, India, was grainy and unpredictable. From the Hardy Boys to Enid Blyton, from Jane Austen to H. Rider Haggard—there was nothing that was considered unacceptable, and nothing that turned us off. But the world opened up for me when I came to Herzog. For it spoke about things no one had ever spoken about before. Its openness bowled me over.
Beena Kamlani
Saul Bellow’s editor, Beena Kamlani
I was eight. It was a hard book to read as a child. The intellectual discourses in the letters Moses Herzog wrote were confusing and frustrating, for one didn’t know any of the references. But its truth was unassailable. Perhaps a child can grasp such things more easily than an adult for here was Moses remembering his childhood, the youngest in a family of four children, an immigrant family struggling to make it in immigrant Chicago, describing the helplessness of a child who sat in full knowledge of the struggles and challenges that faced them. These challenges colored his experience of childhood. Persistent failure rubbed shoulders with success; dashed dreams and thwarted ambitions made near impossible lives already brought low by sickness, the deaths of close family members, and sheer survival. Simple existence had to be constantly redefined, rearticulated, reimagined. In our family, too, there were deaths, divorces, and the effects of failure. Illness and sudden loss were common. Mourning bore witness but the questions multiplied. No one said a word in the mistaken belief that children ought to be protected from the truth. But there, in the kitchen of Moses Herzog’s home on Napoleon Street, in immigrant closeness and proximity, there are no secrets and the children come to know everything because it’s happening in front of them. It is the source of his intimate knowledge about a child’s world, filled with uncertainty, frustration, knowledge that is useless in the present but becomes part of our psychic calibration later, and the constant threat of abandonment. “We were like cave dwellers,” Moses says. We, too, become cave dwellers with him as we hear his pain about losing a beloved wife to a best friend, about the terrible longing for his daughter, and listen to him rage in loneliness against the world. There is the unforgettable scene in that kitchen when Father Herzog comes home robbed and beaten after a bootlegging expedition. “’Sarah!’ he said. ‘Children!’ He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out—empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him—a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?” Beckett, writing about Proust, said, “Yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous.” In Herzog, Bellow shows us how to record our pasts, how to transcribe them, how to live with them, even when they threaten to wreck us.
Photo credit: Beena Kamlani
Bellow concerned himself with what affected people, in the way they lived their lives, and in the way they dealt with the struggles of the heart. He had a real feeling for it, which is why his work leaves such a mark. He taps corresponding notes in another’s life. He is able to articulate what we know but cannot decipher for ourselves. “Every writer’s assumption is that he is as other human beings are, and they are more or less as he is. There’s a principle of psychic unity. [Writing] was not meant to be an occult operation; it was not meant to be an esoteric secret.” Memory becomes the key to unlocking those crossover truths from writer to reader. You not only become a cave dweller in that kitchen but you also recognize the truth of what’s happening when the older Moses takes you into the kitchen of his home where these struggles took place. You trust the sensibility and the mind of the older Moses, remembering, seeing his family again, and as a reader you find equivalent emotional hotspots in your own life, hotspots that take you right into the heart of Saul’s work. In the world I grew up in, girls are handed knowledge in breadcrumbs. It is a privilege, a gift. Boys can expect it by the sackful, for it is necessary to live life, to bring forth families and to support them. What Bellow does is to hand us all this gift. herzog When I was working with him, every night, weary with the challenges and exhilarations of the work, we would wind down for the day and hand the manuscript to his wife, Janis, for safekeeping. He had gone, as usual, close to the fire, and it had taken a lot out of him. We worked on hard copy, and it was the only extant copy of the manuscript. The vault she placed it in was none other than the freezer, for this is the last place to be attacked by fire. That act of reverence and preservation was necessary—for the present, yes, but also for posterity. For those words, cooling in their frozen vault, would become jewels for readers in the future, illuminating and warming them as we ourselves had been. Years later, I told him I’d read him when I was eight. “It was Herzog,” I said. He looked at me incredulously. “You don’t say!” he said. Then he put his fingers on the table where we were working and playfully drummed them against the wooden surface. “And here we are!” he said. -Beena Kamlani Browse through all of Bellow’s work here.  

Celebrating Judy Blume, author of In the Unlikely Event

Judy Blume’s first book for adults in seventeen years has just come out, and we couldn’t be more excited!

In The Unlikely Event is a multi-generational novel that explores war, love, family and a changing America. The story traces an air-travel tragedy from the 1950’s and follows Miri Ammerman as she reflects back on that time, thirty-five years later.

Since Blume has shaped so many lives over the years, we turned to our employees to reminisce about the Blume books they loved growing up.


I have two daughters now in their twenties. When the  younger one was almost eight, she particularly loved Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. When the older one was ten, she loved Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself. Judy Blume was empowering girls before the word empowering was ever used in the current context!”

-Beverly Horowitz, VP Publisher, Delacorte Press


“I used to imagine myself in the NY city apartment building where Peter, Fudge, and their pet Turtle lived. I read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing during “silent” reading time in 3rd grade and giggled in the corner the whole time.”

-Melissa Major, Digital Marketing Coordinator, Random House Children’s Books

Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself was the first Judy Blume book I ever read and my best loved.  Even though our circumstances were entirely different, I saw so much of Sally in myself: she was inquisitive, opinionated, and had the most intensely weird imagination of any character I’d ever read.  I’m still all of those things and I like to think that Sally is too!”

-Emma Shafer, Community Manager, Blogging for Books


“Coming from a family of three siblings, Superfudge both defined and helped navigate my sibling relationships. As a middle child myself, I completely relate to Fudge.”

-Sonia Nash Gupta, Associate Director of Marketing Random House Children’s Books Browse through all of Judy Blume’s books here!

Three Questions for Random House VP & Executive Editor David Ebershoff on Hausfrau

David Ebershoff, Vice President & Executive Editor, Random House, offers insights into his work with author Jill Alexander Essbaum on her debut novel, Hausfrau. Hausfrau is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves. How did the fact that Jill Alexander Essbaum had primarily written poetry before beginning Hausfrau influence her approach to the novel form and the development of her narrative prose voice? Jill’s poetic sensibility is everywhere in Hausfrau.  When we say a novel is poetic, we often mean lyrical or even pretty.  But that’s not how Jill is using poetry here.  For example she uses iambic meter in several sections to create a steady drum-beat of dread and inevitability.  She uses space breaks the way a poet uses them between stanzas to both pause the story and quicken the read.  While writing, she read the novel aloud to hear the sounds of the words (in fact, she has memorized much of it).  Whenever she was stuck and didn’t know what to write next, she started choosing her words the way a poet would — relying on sound, beat, image, and even how it looks on the page.  Yet what’s so remarkable about this, to me at least, is Jill has written a very plot-y novel and paced it like a thriller. What was involved in the scope of the editor/author process of working with Jill from initial manuscript to finished book? The manuscript I read on submission was strong and self-assured.  This made my job delicate — I didn’t want to mess up something that was mostly working.  Jill and I went over the novel line by line, making sure every word was in place and there was nothing extraneous or overwrought.  I paid particular attention to the passages concerning love and sex because I knew a certain kind of reviewer would pounce on any purple or overheated language.  I also asked Jill a number of questions about her protagonist, Anna.  We discussed how and why readers might interpret her, giving Jill a chance to respond (or not) in the text itself. Having already received much praise, drawing comparisons to such classics as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as well as mega-bestsellers such as Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey, Hausfrau is well positioned as it enters the market.  What, in your view, sets Jill’s novel apart and what aspects do you think will most engage readers? I acquired world rights to Hausfrau at a fairly modest level because I wasn’t sure how readers would respond to such a controversial heroine.  I closed the deal the same morning I left for last year’s London Book Fair.  By the time the fair’s doors opened, foreign publishers were offering on the book.  I met with several of them, and so I had a chance to hear directly from readers around the world who were – I’m not exaggerating – obsessed with the book (one editor was in tears).  What I learned then, and continue to see today, is that people read the book differently — some see it as literary fiction, some see it as a psychological thriller, some emphasize the sex and love.  Jill’s UK publisher is calling it domestic noir (if that isn’t a category, it should be).  The novel is almost a Rorschach test.  The same is true with the protagonist, Anna.  Some people empathize with her.  Others love to hate her.  Some understand her.  Others find her a mystery.  The novel opens with this memorable line: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.”  That seems to capture why people are engaging with the book.  Readers are debating with passion and fury just how good a wife Anna was — or wasn’t. Read more about Hausfrau here.