The Amazing Engineering of Roman Baths

Few depic­tions of ancient Roman life neglect to ref­er­ence all the time ancient Romans spent at the baths. One gets the impres­sion that their civ­i­liza­tion was obsessed with clean­li­ness, in con­trast to most of the soci­eties found around the world at the time, but that turns out hard­ly to be the case. In fact, bathing seems to have been a sec­ondary activ­i­ty at Roman baths, which were “places to meet friends, make con­nec­tions, per­haps even score a din­ner invi­ta­tion”; “places to buy a snack, have a mas­sage, or face the dread­ed tweez­ers of the hair remover”; “places to escape from a harsh and sta­tus-dri­ven world; “places to be Roman.”

So says Gar­rett Ryan, cre­ator of the ancient-his­to­ry Youtube chan­nel Told in Stone, in the new video above. He might have added that Roman baths were “third places.” Pop­u­lar­ized by the late soci­ol­o­gist Ray Old­en­burg with the 1989 book The Great Good Place, the con­cept of the third place stands in con­trast to our first and sec­ond places, home and work.

A book­store could be a third place, or a café, or any “hang­out” occu­py­ing that hard-to-define (and by the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in Amer­i­ca, hard-to-find) realm between pub­lic and pri­vate. If it makes you feel con­nect­ed to the com­mu­ni­ty in which you live — indeed, if it makes you feel like you live in a com­mu­ni­ty at all — it may well be a third place.

Roman baths weren’t just impres­sive soci­o­log­i­cal­ly, but also tech­no­log­i­cal­ly. Ryan explains their archi­tec­ture, water sup­ply, heat­ing sys­tems, and clean­ing pro­ce­dures, such as they were. He quotes Mar­cus Aure­lius as describ­ing bath water as “a repul­sive blend of oil, sweat, and filth”; in all like­li­hood, it was “only changed when it became so cloudy that it repelled bathers.” San­i­ta­tion prac­tices appear much improved at Ham­mam Essal­i­hine in Alge­ria, one of the very few ancient Roman baths in con­tin­u­ous use since its con­struc­tion. Ryan doc­u­ments his trip there in the video just above from his oth­er chan­nel Scenic Routes to the Past. Though cap­ti­vat­ed by the sight of a real Roman bath func­tion­ing just as designed, he must have been too con­sumed by thoughts of antiq­ui­ty to remem­ber to pack that mod­ern neces­si­ty, a swim­suit.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Did Roman Aque­ducts Work?: The Most Impres­sive Achieve­ment of Ancient Rome’s Infra­struc­ture, Explained

The Mys­tery Final­ly Solved: Why Has Roman Con­crete Been So Durable?

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pom­peii

An Ani­mat­ed Recon­struc­tion of Ancient Rome: Take A 30-Minute Stroll Through the City’s Vir­tu­al­ly-Recre­at­ed Streets

Behold 3D Recre­ations of Pompeii’s Lav­ish Homes — As They Exist­ed Before the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius

How Toi­lets Worked in Ancient Rome and Medieval Eng­land

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Evolution of Hokusai’s Great Wave: A Study of 113 Known Copies of the Iconic Woodblock Print

The most wide­ly known work by the eigh­teenth- and nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese artist Hoku­sai, 神奈川沖浪裏, is usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as The Great Wave off Kana­gawa. That ver­sion of the title reflects the icon­ic scene depict­ed in the image well enough, though I can’t help but feel that we should be talk­ing about waves, plur­al. Grant­ed, the Japan­ese lan­guage hard­ly makes a fuss about plu­ral­i­ty and sin­gu­lar­i­ty in the first place, but even by the stan­dards of ukiyo‑e wood­block prints, this is a work of art that takes many forms. It’s not just that there are a lot of par­o­dies float­ing around, but that no sin­gle “orig­i­nal” even exists.

“There’s not just one impres­sion of the Great Wave, as many peo­ple think. There were orig­i­nal­ly thou­sands of them,” says sci­en­tist Capucine Koren­berg in the British Muse­um video above. Back in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, “Japan­ese prints were very cheap, and you could buy them for the same amount of mon­ey you could buy a dou­ble help­ing of soup and noo­dles.” Demand for the Great Wave in par­tic­u­lar was such that experts reck­on that at least 8,000 prints were sold, hav­ing been made “until the wood­blocks just start­ed to be so worn out that they could­n’t be used any­more.” Again, note the plur­al: if the blocks used to make the image were replaced, we’d expect to see dif­fer­ences in the actu­al image over time.

We’ve dis­cussed before how the Great Wave went through sev­er­al iter­a­tions over four decades before Hoku­sai found the form rec­og­nized around the world still today. But if you look at a print of the final ver­sion close­ly enough — and know enough about Hoku­sai’s art — you can tell whether it came from an ear­li­er edi­tion or a lat­er one. It was no less an expert than long­time Tokyo-based print­mak­er and Hoku­sai enthu­si­ast David Bull (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) who noticed that “he could see small dif­fer­ences between the strokes” of the three Great Wave prints owned by the British Muse­um. Hear­ing this sent Koren­berg on a quest to deter­mine their exact chrono­log­i­cal order.

Many fac­tors com­pli­cat­ed this task, includ­ing the amount of ink and pres­sure applied to the wood­block dur­ing its cre­ation, as well as the chances of mod­i­fi­ca­tion or par­tial replace­ment of par­tic­u­lar blocks along the way. In the end, she found it “more cer­tain than ever” that the British Muse­um’s three Great Waves came from the same key block, which would have been mod­eled after Hoku­sai’s draw­ing. But along the way, she did make a dis­cov­ery: it was pre­vi­ous­ly thought that 111 iden­ti­fied prints exist­ed, but she con­firmed two more, bring­ing the total up to 113.  Deter­min­ing the fate of the oth­er 7,887 is a task best left to the even more obses­sive ukiyo-e-hunters out there.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Hokusai’s Great Wave, One of the Most Rec­og­niz­able Art­works in the World

The Evo­lu­tion of The Great Wave off Kana­gawa: See Four Ver­sions That Hoku­sai Paint­ed Over Near­ly 40 Years

Watch the Mak­ing of Japan­ese Wood­block Prints, from Start to Fin­ish, by a Long­time Tokyo Print­mak­er

Watch a Mas­ter Japan­ese Print­mak­er at Work: Two Unin­ten­tion­al­ly Relax­ing ASMR Videos

A Col­lec­tion of Hokusai’s Draw­ings Are Being Carved Onto Wood­blocks & Print­ed for the First Time Ever

Watch Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kana­gawa Get Entire­ly Recre­at­ed with 50,000 LEGO Bricks

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity Explained in One of the Earliest Science Films Ever Made (1923)

Albert Ein­stein devel­oped his the­o­ry of spe­cial rel­a­tiv­i­ty in 1905, and then men­tal­ly mapped out his the­o­ry of gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty between 1907 and 1915. For years to come, the rest of the world would try to catch up with Ein­stein, try­ing to under­stand the gist, let alone the full impli­ca­tions, of his ground­break­ing ideas.

Above, you can watch one such attempt. Pro­duced by Max and David Fleis­ch­er, best known for their Bet­ty Boop and Super­man car­toons, The Ein­stein The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty used the pow­er of ani­ma­tion to explain rel­a­tiv­i­ty to a broad, non-sci­en­tif­ic audi­ence in 1923. One of the first edu­ca­tion­al sci­ence films ever made, the silent ani­mat­ed film was cre­at­ed with the assis­tance of sci­ence jour­nal­ist Gar­rett P. Serviss and oth­er experts who had a han­dle on Ein­stein’s the­o­ries. Accord­ing to a biog­ra­phy of Max Fleis­ch­er, the film was “an out-and-out suc­cess.” “The crit­ics and the pub­lic applaud­ed it. And Ein­stein did too, appar­ent­ly deem­ing it an “excel­lent attempt to illus­trate an abstract sub­ject.”

Watch the short film above. And find it added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Hear Albert Ein­stein Read “The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence” (1941)

Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty: The Clas­sic Intro­duc­tion to Ein­stein (Free Audio)

Albert Ein­stein Appears in Remark­ably Col­orized Video & Con­tem­plates the Fate of Human­i­ty After the Atom­ic Bomb (1946)

16th-Century Japanese Historians Describe the Oddness of Meeting the First Europeans They Ever Saw

Go to Japan today, and the coun­try will present you with plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties to buy pantabako, and tem­pu­ra. These prod­ucts them­selves — bread, cig­a­rettes, and deep-fried seafood or veg­eta­bles — will be famil­iar enough. Even the words that refer to them may have a rec­og­niz­able ring, espe­cial­ly if you hap­pen to be a Por­tuguese-speak­er. Japan­ese has more than its fair share of nat­u­ral­ized terms, used to refer to every­thing from the kon­bi­ni on the cor­ner to the riizanabu­ru prices found there­in, but none of them are as deeply root­ed as its terms import­ed from Por­tu­gal.

Rela­tions between Japan and Por­tu­gal go back to 1543, when the first Por­tuguese sailors arrived in the south­ern Japan­ese arch­i­pel­ago. Impres­sions of this encounter are includ­ed in the video above, a Voic­es of the Past com­pi­la­tion of how actu­al six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese his­to­ri­ans described their unex­pect­ed vis­i­tors. “A south­ern bar­bar­ian ves­sel came to our shores,” writes one of them, anony­mous­ly. From it “emerged an unname­able crea­ture, some­what sim­i­lar in shape to a human being, but look­ing rather more like a long-nosed gob­lin, or the giant demon mikoshi-nyūdō.”

This grotesque, unin­tel­li­gi­ble crea­ture turned to be a bateren; that is, a padre, a mis­sion­ary priest come to spread the kirishi­tan reli­gion in this dis­tant land. In this pri­ma­ry task they faced severe, ulti­mate­ly insur­mount­able chal­lenges, but as the first Euro­peans to make con­tact with Japan, they also hap­pened much more suc­cess­ful­ly to dis­sem­i­nate West­ern con­cepts and tech­niques in agri­cul­ture, sci­ence, and art (not to men­tion dessert cul­ture). Their intro­duc­tion of the gun, described in detail by anoth­er con­tem­po­rary his­to­ri­an, also changed the course of Japan­ese his­to­ry, doing its part to make pos­si­ble the uni­fi­ca­tion of Japan in the fol­low­ing cen­tu­ry.

Kurusu in hand, these bateren argued that one should devote one­self to Deusu in order to avoid eter­nal con­dem­na­tion to inheruno and gain admis­sion to paraiso. There were con­verts, though per­haps not in num­bers as large as expect­ed. Then as now, the Japan­ese had their own way of going about things, but in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry, they had rulers inclined to crack down hard on sus­pi­cious for­eign influ­ence. The last sec­tion of the video con­tains tes­ti­mo­ny of a show­down staged between Chris­tian­i­ty and Bud­dhism, a debate in which the bateren seemed to have put on a poor show. Defeat­ed, they were either expelled or exe­cut­ed, and not long there­after, Japan closed the doa — as they now call it — for a cou­ple more cen­turies.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear the First Japan­ese Vis­i­tor to the Unit­ed States & Europe Describe Life in the West (1860–1862)

The His­to­ry of Ancient Japan: The Sto­ry of How Japan Began, Told by Those Who Wit­nessed It (297‑1274)

What Hap­pens When a Japan­ese Wood­block Artist Depicts Life in Lon­don in 1866, Despite Nev­er Hav­ing Set Foot There

A Japan­ese Illus­trat­ed His­to­ry of Amer­i­ca (1861): Fea­tures George Wash­ing­ton Punch­ing Tigers, John Adams Slay­ing Snakes & Oth­er Fan­tas­tic Scenes

The 17th-Cen­tu­ry Japan­ese Samu­rai Who Sailed to Europe, Met the Pope & Became a Roman Cit­i­zen

Hear an Ancient Chi­nese His­to­ri­an Describe The Roman Empire (and Oth­er Voic­es of the Past)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Watch the Earliest-Known Charles Dickens Film: The Death of Poor Joe

A lit­tle over a decade ago, a cura­tor at the British Film Insti­tute (BFI) dis­cov­ered the old­est sur­viv­ing film fea­tur­ing a Charles Dick­ens char­ac­ter, “The Death of Poor Joe.” The silent film, direct­ed by George Albert Smith in 1900, brings to life Dick­ens’ char­ac­ter Jo, the cross­ing sweep­er from Bleak House. Pri­or to this find, the title of the old­est known Dick­ens film belonged to Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost, which pre­miered in Novem­ber 1901.

Pro­vid­ing more con­text for the film, the BFI writes:

This trag­ic short film is based on the stage pro­duc­tion of Poor Jo the Cross­ing Sweep­er, which itself adapt­ed one of the most affect­ing sto­ries in Dick­ens’ epic nov­el Bleak House. This short film is very much an adap­ta­tion of the stage ver­sion, in which a fol­low-spot recre­at­ed the night watch­man’s lamp. As Joe dies, nev­er hav­ing been taught to pray, the light also rep­re­sents the redemp­tive light of heav­en.

The char­ac­ter of Joe was pop­u­larised in the 19th cen­tu­ry by actress Jen­nie Lee, who toured her per­for­mance around Europe and the USA. Here Joe is played by Lau­ra Bay­ley and the Night-watch­man by Tom Green. Both actors were reg­u­lar col­lab­o­ra­tors with the Brighton-based film­mak­er GA Smith (Bay­ley was his wife).

You can watch the film, cour­tesy of BFI, above.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent 

An Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion of Charles Dick­ens’ Clas­sic Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol (1971)

Watch L’Inferno (1911), Italy’s First Fea­ture Film and Per­haps the Finest Adap­ta­tion of Dante’s Clas­sic

Watch Very First Film Adap­ta­tions of Shakespeare’s Plays: King John, The Tem­pest, Richard III & More (1899–1936)

Franken­stein Hits the Sil­ver Screen (1910)

What’s Under London? Discover London’s Forbidden Underworld

When the words Lon­don and under­ground come togeth­er, the first thing that comes to most of our minds, nat­u­ral­ly, is the Lon­don Under­ground. But though it may enjoy the hon­or­able dis­tinc­tion of the world’s first rail­way to run below the streets, the stal­wart Tube is hard­ly the only thing buried below the city — and far indeed from the old­est. The video above makes a jour­ney through var­i­ous sub­ter­ranean stra­ta, start­ing with the paving stone and con­tin­u­ing through the soil, elec­tric cables, and gas pipelines beneath. From there, things get Roman.

First comes the Billings­gate Roman House and Baths and the Roman amphithe­ater, two pre­served places from what was once called Lon­dini­um. Below that lev­el run sev­er­al now-under­ground rivers, just above the depth of Win­ston Churchill’s pri­vate bunker, which is now main­tained as a muse­um.

Far­ther down, at a depth of 66 feet, we find the remains of Lon­don’s tube sys­tem — not the Tube, but the pneu­mat­ic tube, a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry tech­nol­o­gy that could fire encap­su­lat­ed let­ters from one part of the city to anoth­er. More effec­tive and longer lived was the lat­er, more deeply installed Lon­don Post Office Rail­way, which was used to make deliv­er­ies until 2003.

At 79 feet under­ground, we final­ly meet with the Under­ground — or at least the first and shal­low­est of its eleven lines. The Tube has long become an essen­tial part of the lives of most Lon­don­ers, but around the same depth exists anoth­er facil­i­ty known to rel­a­tive­ly few: the Cam­den cat­a­combs, a sys­tem of under­ground pas­sages once used to sta­ble the hors­es who worked on the rail­ways. Fur­ther down are the net­work of World War II-era “deep shel­ters,” one of which host­ed the plan­ning of D‑Day; below them is a still-func­tion­al facil­i­ty instru­men­tal to the defeat of dif­fer­ent ene­mies, typhus and cholera. That would be Lon­don’s sew­er sys­tem, for which we should spare a thought if we’ve ever walked along the Thames and appre­ci­at­ed the fact that it no longer stinks.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Lon­dini­um Became Lon­don, Lute­tia Became Paris, and Oth­er Roman Cities Got Their Mod­ern Names

The Lost Neigh­bor­hood Buried Under New York City’s Cen­tral Park

“The Won­der­ground Map of Lon­don Town,” the Icon­ic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Sub­way Sys­tem

Under­ci­ty: Explor­ing the Under­bel­ly of New York City

The Genius of Har­ry Beck’s 1933 Lon­don Tube Map–and How It Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Sub­way Map Design Every­where

Paris Under­ground

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Roger Federer’s Dartmouth Commencement Address: “Effortless Is a Myth” & Other Life Lessons from Tennis

In 2006, David Fos­ter Wal­lace pub­lished a piece in the New York Times Mag­a­zine head­lined “Roger Fed­er­er as Reli­gious Expe­ri­ence.” Even then, he could declare Fed­er­er, “at 25, the best ten­nis play­er cur­rent­ly alive. Maybe the best ever.” Much had already been writ­ten about “his old-school sto­icism and men­tal tough­ness and good sports­man­ship and evi­dent over­all decen­cy and thought­ful­ness and char­i­ta­ble largess.” Less eas­i­ly com­ment­ed upon — because much less eas­i­ly described — was the aes­thet­ic tran­scen­dence of his per­for­mance on the court, which Wal­lace thought best wit­nessed in per­son.

“If you’ve watched ten­nis only on tele­vi­sion, you sim­ply have no idea how hard these pros are hit­ting the ball, how fast the ball is mov­ing, how lit­tle time the play­ers have to get to it, and how quick­ly they’re able to move and rotate and strike and recov­er,” Wal­lace writes. “And none are faster, or more decep­tive­ly effort­less about it, than Roger Fed­er­er.” Was that one of the obser­va­tions the cham­pi­on had in mind this past week­end, eigh­teen years lat­er — and two years after his own retire­ment from the game — when he took the tree-stump lectern before Dart­mouth’s class of 2024 and declared that “Effort­less is a myth”?

That was one of three “ten­nis lessons” — that is, lessons for life derived from his long and huge­ly suc­cess­ful expe­ri­ence in ten­nis — that Fed­er­er lays out in the com­mence­ment address above. The sec­ond, “It’s only a point,” is a notion of which it’s all too easy to lose sight of amid the bal­let­ic inten­si­ty of a match. The third, “Life is big­ger than the court,” is one Fed­er­er him­self now must learn in the dai­ly life after his own “grad­u­a­tion” that stretch­es out before him. For a man still con­sid­ered one of the great­est play­ers ever to pick up a rack­et, is there life after pro­fes­sion­al ten­nis?

Fed­er­er acknowl­edges the irony of his not hav­ing gone to col­lege, but choos­ing instead to leave school at six­teen in order to devote him­self to his sport. “In many ways, pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes are our cul­ture’s holy men,” Wal­lace writes in anoth­er essay. “They give them­selves over to a pur­suit, endure great pri­va­tion and pain to actu­al­ize them­selves at it, and enjoy a rela­tion­ship to per­fec­tion that we admire and reward.” But when their ath­let­ic careers inevitably end, they find them­selves in a great­ly height­ened ver­sion of the sit­u­a­tion we all do when we come to the end of our insti­tu­tion­al­ized edu­ca­tion, won­der­ing what could or should come next.

Clear­ly, Fed­er­er does­n’t suf­fer from the kind of inar­tic­u­la­cy and unre­flec­tive­ness that Wal­lace diag­nosed over and over in oth­er pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes about whom he wrote. In pro­fil­ing play­er Michael Joyce, for instance, Wal­lace saw that Joyce and his col­leagues lived in “a world that, like a child’s world, is very seri­ous and very small” — but which Fed­er­er has long dis­played an uncom­mon abil­i­ty to see beyond. Still, as he must know, that guar­an­tees him a sat­is­fy­ing sec­ond act no more than even world-beat­ing suc­cess in any giv­en field guar­an­tees any of us gen­er­al well-being in life. Wal­lace, too, knew that full well — and of course, he was no mean com­mence­ment speak­er him­self.

Relat­ed con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Famous Com­mence­ment Speech, “This is Water,” Gets Ani­mat­ed on a White­board

Ani­ma­tions Revive Lost Inter­views with David Fos­ter Wal­lace, Jim Mor­ri­son & Dave Brubeck

Mar­cel Proust Plays Air Gui­tar on a Ten­nis Rack­et (1891)

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

Bob Dylan and George Har­ri­son Play Ten­nis, 1969

Medieval Ten­nis: A Short His­to­ry and Demon­stra­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Hear Edgar Allan Poe Stories Read by Iggy Pop, Jeff Buckley, Christopher Walken, Marianne Faithful & More

In 1849, a lit­tle over 175 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe was found dead in a Bal­ti­more gut­ter under mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances very like­ly relat­ed to vio­lent elec­tion fraud. It was an igno­min­ious end to a life marked by hard­ship, alco­holism, and loss. After strug­gling for years as the first Amer­i­can writer to try and make a liv­ing from his art, and fail­ing in sev­er­al pub­lish­ing ven­tures and posi­tions, Poe achieved few of his aims, bare­ly get­ting by finan­cial­ly and only man­ag­ing to attract a little—often negative—notice for now-famous poems like “The Raven.” Con­tem­po­raries like Ralph Wal­do Emer­son dis­par­aged the poem and a lat­er gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers, includ­ing William But­ler Yeats, pro­nounced him “vul­gar.”

But of course, as we know, a coun­ter­cur­rent of Poe appre­ci­a­tion took hold among writ­ers, artists, and film­mak­ers inter­est­ed in mys­tery, hor­ror, and the supernatural—to such a degree that in the pre­vi­ous cen­tu­ry, near­ly every artist even pass­ing­ly asso­ci­at­ed with dark­er themes has inter­pret­ed Poe as a rite of pas­sage. We’ve fea­tured a read­ing of “The Raven” by the often-sin­is­ter Christo­pher Walken.

At the top of the post, you can hear anoth­er ver­sion of the Queens-born actor read­ing Poe’s best-known work, a poem designed to pro­duce what the author called a “uni­ty of effect” with its incan­ta­to­ry rep­e­ti­tions. This record­ing comes from a col­lec­tion of celebri­ty Poe read­ings called Closed on Account of Rabies, which also fea­tures such unique takes on the clas­sic hor­ror writer’s work as that above, “The Tell-Tale Heart” as read by Iggy Pop.

Just above, hear a less­er-known poem by Poe called “Ulalume” read by Jeff Buck­ley, with an accom­pa­ny­ing sound­track of low, puls­ing, vague­ly West­ern-inspired music that well suits Buckley’s for­mal, rhyth­mic recita­tion. The use of music on this album has divid­ed many Poe fans, and admit­ted­ly, some tracks work bet­ter than oth­ers. On Buckley’s “Ulalume,” the music height­ens ten­sion and pro­vides a per­fect atmos­phere for imag­in­ing “the misty mid region of Weir,” its “ghoul-haunt­ed wood­land,” and the “sco­ri­ac rivers” of lava pour­ing from the poet’s heart. On Mar­i­anne Faithful’s read­ing of “Annabelle Lee,” below, a score of keen­ing synths can seem over­wrought and unnec­es­sary.

The remain­der of the 1997 album, which you can pur­chase here, treats us to read­ings from 80s goth-rock stars Dia­man­da Galas and Gavin Fri­day, Bad Lieu­tenant direc­tor Abel Fer­rara, Blondie singer Deb­bie Har­ry, and grav­el-voiced New Orleans blues­man Dr. John, among oth­ers.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Clas­sic Read­ings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vin­cent Price, James Earl Jones, Christo­pher Walken, Neil Gaiman & More

Why Should You Read Edgar Allan Poe? An Ani­mat­ed Video Explains

7 Tips from Edgar Allan Poe on How to Write Vivid Sto­ries and Poems

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Make a Comment ( 2 ) |

Harvard Removes the Human Skin Binding from a Book in Its Collection Since 1934

In June of 2014, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty’s Houghton Library put up a blog post titled “Caveat Lecter,” announc­ing “good news for fans of anthro­po­der­mic bib­liop­e­gy, bib­lio­ma­ni­acs, and can­ni­bals alike.” The occa­sion was the sci­en­tif­ic deter­mi­na­tion that a book in the Houghton’s col­lec­tion long rumored to have been bound in human skin — the task of whose retrieval once served, they say, as a haz­ing rit­u­al for stu­dent employ­ees — was, indeed, “with­out a doubt bound in human skin.” What a dif­fer­ence a decade makes: not only has the blog post been delet­ed, the book itself has been tak­en out of from cir­cu­la­tion in order to have the now-offend­ing bind­ing removed.

“Har­vard Library has removed human skin from the bind­ing of a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s book Des des­tinées de l’âme (1880s),” declares a stren­u­ous­ly apolo­getic state­ment issued by the uni­ver­si­ty. “The volume’s first own­er, French physi­cian and bib­lio­phile Dr. Ludovic Bouland (1839–1933), bound the book with skin he took with­out con­sent from the body of a deceased female patient in a hos­pi­tal where he worked.” Hav­ing been in the col­lec­tion since 1934, the book was first placed there by John B. Stet­son, Jr., “an Amer­i­can diplo­mat, busi­ness­man, and Har­vard alum­nus” (not to men­tion an heir to the for­tune gen­er­at­ed by the epony­mous hat).

“Bouland knew that Hous­saye had writ­ten the book while griev­ing his wife’s death,” writes Mike Jay in the New York Review of Books, “and felt that this was an appro­pri­ate bind­ing for it — ‘a book on the human soul mer­its that it be giv­en human cloth­ing.’ ” He also “includ­ed a note stat­ing that “this book is bound in human skin parch­ment on which no orna­ment has been stamped to pre­serve its ele­gance.” This copy of Des des­tinées de l’âme isn’t the only book rumored — or, with the pep­tide mass fin­ger­print­ing (PMF) tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped over the past decade, con­firmed — to have been bound in human skin. “The old­est reput­ed exam­ples are three 13th-cen­tu­ry Bibles held at the Bib­lio­thèque Nationale in France, write the New York Times’ Jen­nifer Schuessler and Julia Jacobs.

Jay also men­tions the espe­cial­ly vivid exam­ple of “an 1892 French edi­tion of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug, adorned with a skull emblem, is gen­uine human skin: Poe en peau humaine.” In gen­er­al, Schuessler and Jacobs note, the largest num­ber of human skin-bound books “date from the Vic­to­ri­an era, the hey­day of anatom­i­cal col­lect­ing, when doc­tors some­times had med­ical trea­tis­es and oth­er texts bound in skin from patients or cadav­ers.” Now that this prac­tice has been retroac­tive­ly judged to be not just deeply dis­turb­ing but offi­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic (to use the vogue term of recent years) it’s up to the anthro­po­der­mic-bib­liop­e­gy enthu­si­asts out there to deter­mine whether to put the items in their own col­lec­tions to the PMF test — or to leave a bit of macabre mys­tery in the world of anti­quar­i­an book-col­lect­ing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Old Books Bound in Human Skin Found in Har­vard Libraries (and Else­where in Boston)

When Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Recy­cled & Used to Make the First Print­ed Books

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Man­u­script in the World

A Mes­mer­iz­ing Look at the Mak­ing of a Late Medieval Book from Start to Fin­ish

3,500 Occult Man­u­scripts Will Be Dig­i­tized & Made Freely Avail­able Online, Thanks to Da Vin­ci Code Author Dan Brown

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

How the 13th-Century Sufi Poet Rumi Became One of the World’s Most Popular Writers

The Mid­dle East is hard­ly the world’s most har­mo­nious region, and it only gets more frac­tious if you add in South Asia and the Mediter­ranean. But there’s one thing on which many res­i­dents of that wide geo­graph­i­cal span can agree: Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥam­mad Rūmī. One might at first imag­ine that a thir­teenth-cen­tu­ry poet and mys­ti­cal philoso­pher who wrote in Per­sian, with occa­sion­al for­ays into Turk­ish, Ara­bic, and Greek, would be a niche fig­ure today, if known at all. In fact, Rumi, as he’s com­mon­ly known, is now one of the most pop­u­lar writ­ers in not just the Mid­dle East but the world; Eng­lish rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of his verse have even made him the best-sell­ing poet in the Unit­ed States.

“The trans­for­ma­tive moment in Rumi’s life came in 1244, when he met a wan­der­ing mys­tic known as Shams of Tabriz,” writes the BBC’s Jane Cia­bat­tari. She quotes Brad Gooch, author of Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love, describ­ing them as hav­ing an “elec­tric friend­ship for three years,” after which Shams dis­ap­peared. “Rumi coped by writ­ing poet­ry,” which includes 3,000 poems writ­ten for “Shams, the prophet Muham­mad and God. He wrote 2,000 rubay­at, four-line qua­trains. He wrote in cou­plets a six-vol­ume spir­i­tu­al epic, The Mas­navi.” He did all this work in ser­vice of what, in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, Stephanie Honchell Smith calls his ulti­mate goal: “the reuni­fi­ca­tion of his soul with God through the expe­ri­ence of divine love.”

How is such a love to be accessed? “Love resides not in learn­ing, not in knowl­edge, not in pages in books,” Rumi declared. “Wher­ev­er the debates of men may lead, that is not the lover’s path.” He pur­sued it through devo­tion to Shams’ Sufism, “par­tic­i­pat­ing in rit­u­al­ized danc­ing and preach­ing the reli­gion of love through lec­tures, poet­ry, and prose.” Lat­er in life, he shift­ed “from ecsta­t­ic expres­sions of divine love to vers­es that guide oth­ers to dis­cov­er it for them­selves,” incor­po­rat­ing “ideas, sto­ries, and quotes from Islam­ic reli­gious texts, Ara­bic and Per­sian lit­er­a­ture and ear­li­er Sufi writ­ings and poet­ry.” Per­haps there can be no full appre­ci­a­tion of Rumi’s work with­out a schol­ar’s under­stand­ing of the lan­guages and cul­tures he knew. But if his sales fig­ures are any­thing to go by, the long­ing into which his com­plex work taps is uni­ver­sal.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Mys­ti­cal Poet­ry of Rumi Read By Til­da Swin­ton, Madon­na, Robert Bly & Cole­man Barks

Learn Islam­ic & Indi­an Phi­los­o­phy with 107 Episodes of the His­to­ry of Phi­los­o­phy With­out Any Gaps Pod­cast

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

500+ Beau­ti­ful Man­u­scripts from the Islam­ic World Now Dig­i­tized & Free to Down­load

The Birth and Rapid Rise of Islam, Ani­mat­ed (622‑1453)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Download Issues of “Weird Tales” (1923–1954): The Pioneering Pulp Horror Magazine Features Original Stories by Lovecraft, Bradbury & Many More

We live in an era of genre. Browse through TV shows of the last decade to see what I mean: Hor­ror, sci-fi, fan­ta­sy, super­heroes, futur­is­tic dystopias…. Take a casu­al glance at the bur­geon­ing glob­al film fran­chis­es or mer­chan­dis­ing empires. Where in ear­li­er decades, hor­ror and fan­ta­sy inhab­it­ed the teenage domain of B‑movies and com­ic books, they’ve now become dom­i­nant forms of pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive for adults. Telling the sto­ry of how this came about might involve the kind of lengthy soci­o­log­i­cal analy­sis on which peo­ple stake aca­d­e­m­ic careers. And find­ing a con­ve­nient begin­ning for that sto­ry wouldn’t be easy.

Do we start with The Cas­tle of Otran­to, the first Goth­ic nov­el, which opened the door for such books as Drac­u­la and Franken­stein? Or do we open with Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre short sto­ries and poems cap­ti­vat­ed the public’s imag­i­na­tion and inspired a mil­lion imi­ta­tors? Maybe. But if we real­ly want to know when the most pop­ulist, mass-mar­ket hor­ror and fan­ta­sy began—the kind that inspired tele­vi­sion shows from the Twi­light Zone to the X‑Files to Super­nat­ur­al to The Walk­ing Dead—we need to start with H.P. Love­craft, and with the pulpy mag­a­zine that pub­lished his bizarre sto­ries, Weird Tales.


Debut­ing in 1923, Weird Tales, writes The Pulp Mag­a­zines Project, pro­vid­ed “a venue for fic­tion, poet­ry and non-fic­tion on top­ics rang­ing from ghost sto­ries to alien inva­sions to the occult.” The mag­a­zine intro­duced its read­ers to past mas­ters like Poe, Bram Stok­er, and H.G. Wells, and to the lat­est weird­ness from Love­craft and con­tem­po­raries like August Der­leth, Ash­ton Smith, Cather­ine L. Moore, Robert Bloch, and Robert E. Howard (cre­ator of Conan the Bar­bar­ian).

In the magazine’s first few decades, you wouldn’t have thought it very influ­en­tial. Founder Jacob Clark Hen­nen­berg­er strug­gled to turn a prof­it, and the mag­a­zine “nev­er had a large cir­cu­la­tion.” But no mag­a­zine is per­haps bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the explo­sion of pulp genre fic­tion that swept through the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and even­tu­al­ly gave birth to the jug­ger­nauts of Mar­vel and DC.


Weird Tales is wide­ly accept­ed by cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans as “the first pulp mag­a­zine to spe­cial­ize in super­nat­ur­al and occult fic­tion,” points out The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion (though, as we not­ed before, an obscure Ger­man title, Der Orchideen­garten, tech­ni­cal­ly got there ear­li­er). And while the mag­a­zine may not have been wide­ly pop­u­lar, as the Vel­vet Under­ground was to the rapid spread of var­i­ous sub­gen­era of rock in the sev­en­ties, so was Weird Tales to hor­ror and fan­ta­sy fan­dom. Every­one who read it either start­ed their own mag­a­zine or fan­club, or began writ­ing their own “weird fic­tion”—Lovecraft’s term for the kind of super­nat­ur­al hor­ror he churned out for sev­er­al decades.

Fans of Love­craft can read and down­load scans of his sto­ries and let­ters to the edi­tor pub­lished in Weird Tales at the links below, brought to us by The Love­craft eZine (via SFFau­dio).

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Sep­tem­ber 1923 – Sep­tem­ber 1923

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Octo­ber 1923 – Octo­ber 1923

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Jan­u­ary 1924 – Jan­u­ary 1924

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, March 1924 – March 1924

Impris­oned With The Pharaohs – May/June/July 1924

Hyp­nos – May/June/July 1924

The Tomb – Jan­u­ary 1926

The Ter­ri­ble Old Man – August 1926

Yule Hor­ror – Decem­ber 1926

The White Ship – March 1927

Let­ter to the edi­tor of Weird Tales, Feb­ru­ary 1928 – Feb­ru­ary 1928

The Dun­wich Hor­ror – April 1929

The Tree – August 1938

Fun­gi From Yug­goth Part XIII: The Port – Sep­tem­ber 1946

Fun­gi From Yug­goth Part X: The Pigeon-Fly­ers – Jan­u­ary 1947

Fun­gi From Yug­goth Part XXVI: The Famil­iars – Jan­u­ary 1947

The City – July 1950

Hallowe’en In A Sub­urb – Sep­tem­ber 1952

Fans of ear­ly pulp hor­ror and fantasy—–or grad stu­dents writ­ing their the­sis on the evo­lu­tion of genre fiction—can view and down­load dozens of issues of Weird Tales, from the 20s to the 50s, at the links below:

The Inter­net Archive has dig­i­tized copies from the 1920s and 1930s.

The Pulp Mag­a­zine Project hosts HTML, Flip­Book, and PDF ver­sions of Weird Tales issues from 1936 to 1939

This site has PDF scans of indi­vid­ual Weird Tales sto­ries from the 40s and 50s, includ­ing work by Love­craft, Ray Brad­bury, Dorothy Quick, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Stur­geon.

And to learn much more about the his­to­ry of the mag­a­zine, you may wish to beg, bor­row, or steal a copy of the pri­cy col­lec­tion of essays, The Unique Lega­cy of Weird Tales: The Evo­lu­tion of Mod­ern Fan­ta­sy and Hor­ror.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the First Hor­ror & Fan­ta­sy Mag­a­zine, Der Orchideen­garten, and Its Bizarre Art­work (1919–1921)

Enter a Huge Archive of Amaz­ing Sto­ries, the World’s First Sci­ence Fic­tion Mag­a­zine, Launched in 1926

Down­load 15,000+ Free Gold­en Age Comics from the Dig­i­tal Com­ic Muse­um

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Make a Comment ( 5 ) |

  • Great Lectures

  • Sign up for Newsletter

  • About Us

    Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.

    Advertise With Us

  • Archives

  • Search

  • Quantcast
    Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.