Episode #21 – “Literature”

“The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, novelist and playwright

Date Published


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1hr 29min

They say to tell a good story, often the best place to start is at the beginning. But to properly set the scene, we must define our terms. Mr C opens the conversation with some dictionary terms of ‘literature’ and we quickly realise that this is a broad and multifaceted topic. He then tells of the story of the city of Alexandria in ancient Egypt, whose famous library (often considered to be humanity’s greatest repository of knowledge) saw a tragic end at the hands of Julius Caesar and his army in 48 BC.

Mr Beard then turns the page, rolling our timeline forward approx. 1400 years to the city of Mainz in Germany. This is where Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press, changing people’s access to information and spurring on an evolution in knowledge and allowing for the Renaissance and the birth of the scientific method.

Our story continues with Viktor Schauberger, a “pseudoscientist” of his time, and how he produced numerous patents and inventions, not by sitting in a classroom reading books, but rather by immersing himself in nature and letting it’s secrets reveal themselves to him. Himself and Charles Darwin would have had many interesting conversations, should they have bumped into eachother down the pub.

We then move on to highlight some of our favourite authors and book series. The range is wide as we jump from philosophical greats such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Viktor Frankl to fiction and fantasy maestros such as Dan Brown, JK Rowling and George RR Martin. 

The final chapter of this episode closes with our two hosts reminiscing on Road Dahl and all the literary gifts he left us in the pages of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and The Twits. A cornflake my go weeks hidden in a beard, but the cherished memories Roald Dahl gives kids and adults alike last a lifetime. And for that, and for literature, we are eternally grateful.

Main Topic Of This Episode​​

Dictionary Britannica defines literature as ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit’, but “literature” is so much more.

Literature is a time machine. It can transport you to distant lands and points in human history. How did Julius Caesar feel when he realised he was responsible for the burning of humanity’s greatest library?

Literature is also a mind reader. It can tell you what it feels like to fall in love, to achieve your wildest dreams, or even to murder your cousin. What thoughts ran through Martin Luther King Jr’s mind as he put pen to paper to write his famous speech? Or Harry Potter as he boarded the Hogwarts Express for the first time?

But more than anything, literature is a teacher. Through books, we have access to unlimited experiences, lessons, experiments and meditations of history’s greatest minds and individuals. You can upgrade your knowledge or transport yourself to a fantasy world by simply picking up a book and turning the page.

Check Out Some Further Reading​

Found something interesting discussed in this episode? Chances are, we found it interesting too and we went off and did a bunch of reading online about it.

So why not dive further into the topic! Here are some handy links we think you might like.

The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. It is claimed that the Library of Alexandria was founded during the reign of Ptolemy I (c. 323–c. 283 BC) and that it was initially organized by Demetrius of Phalerum, a student of Aristotle who had been exiled from Athens and taken refuge in Alexandria within the Ptolemaic court. 

The Library quickly acquired many papyrus scrolls, due largely to the Ptolemaic kings’ aggressive and well-funded policies for procuring texts. It is unknown precisely how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.

In 48 BC, during Caesar’s Civil War, Julius Caesar was besieged at Alexandria. His soldiers set fire to some of the Egyptian ships docked in the Alexandrian port while trying to clear the wharves to block the fleet belonging to Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIV. This fire purportedly spread to the parts of the city nearest to the docks, causing considerable devastation. The first-century AD Roman playwright and Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger quotes Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita Libri, which was written between 63 and 14 BC, as saying that the fire started by Caesar destroyed 40,000 scrolls from the Library of Alexandria.

Johannes Gutenberg’s work on the printing press began in approximately 1436 when he partnered with Andreas Dritzehn—a man who had previously instructed in gem-cutting—and Andreas Heilmann, owner of a paper mill.

In Renaissance Europe (1400-1500s), the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication, which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities. The sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. 

The BBC made a wonderful documentary, presented by Stephen Fry, about the invention of the printing press. Check it out – ‘The History Of The First Printing Press – The Machine That Made Us’

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881), was a Russian novelist, philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist. Dostoevsky’s literary works explore human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmospheres of 19th-century Russia, and engage with a variety of philosophical and religious themes. 

His most acclaimed novels include Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1869), Demons (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Dostoevsky’s body of works consists of 12 novels, four novellas, 16 short stories, and numerous other works. Many literary critics rate him as one of the greatest psychological novelists in world literature. His 1864 novella Notes from Underground is considered to be one of the first works of existentialist literature.

For more information on this psychology titan, check out his Wikipedia page.

Harry Potter is a series of seven fantasy novels written by British author J. K. Rowling. The novels chronicle the lives of a young wizard, Harry Potter, and his friends Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, all of whom are students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The main story arc concerns Harry’s struggle against Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard who intends to become immortal, overthrow the wizard governing body known as the Ministry of Magic and subjugate all wizards and Muggles (non-magical people).

As of February 2018, the books have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide, making them the best-selling book series in history, and have been translated into eighty languages.

The first novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, has sold in excess of 120 million copies, making it one of the bestselling books in history. The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows became the fastest selling book in history, moving 11 million units in the first twenty-four hours of release.

By 24 June 2000, Rowling’s novels had been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for 79 straight weeks; the first three novels were each on the hardcover best-seller list. For the release of Goblet of Fire, 9,000 FedEx trucks were used with no other purpose than to deliver the book.

Roald Dahl (1916 – 1990) was a British novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, and wartime fighter pilot. His books have sold more than 250 million copies worldwide. He served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He became a fighter pilot and, subsequently, an intelligence officer, rising to the rank of acting wing commander. 

He rose to prominence as a writer in the 1940s with works for children and for adults, and he became one of the world’s best-selling authors. He has been referred to as “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century”. His awards for contribution to literature include the 1983 World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement and the British Book Awards’ Children’s Author of the Year in 1990.

Dahl’s short stories are known for their unexpected endings, and his children’s books for their unsentimental, macabre, often darkly comic mood, featuring villainous adult enemies of the child characters. His children’s books champion the kindhearted and feature an underlying warm sentiment. 

His works for children include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, The Twits, and George’s Marvellous Medicine. His adult works include Tales of the Unexpected.

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