Joseph Priestly’s big writing idea, a winter’s read recommendation, and radio drama from the BBC: newsletter, Dec. 7, 2018

December 10, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, history, journalism, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to all of the subscribers on Jim’s list (2,977) on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018.



In light of the reduction of our beehives, which I reported last week, I have come across a couple of substantial articles about bees and insects in this environment. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read them yet but will do so soon and will pass along anything of interest.

Meanwhile, I continue to heap coals of caricatures on the heads of my poor, unsuspecting newsletter readers. For this newsletter, I went a bit wild, so pardon is humbly sought. I would enjoy knowing what you think, and I honestly don’t mind criticism. Caricatures are fun to do. I have always been fascinated by them and wished that I could be a competent caricaturist.

Another current obsession: shape note singing. I am writing a chapter on that for the second volume of Foothills Voices, a book featuring local writers produced by the Friends of the Blount County Library. Shape note singing is not merely singing without standard musical notation. Its history and traditions go back to the beginning of the 19th century. More later.

Thanks for reading. Haave a great weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: This newsletter was sent to 2,984 subscribers and had a 32.8 percent open rate; 3 people unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Joseph Priestly and his big (writing) idea

Joseph Priestly, the Englishman we remember as a great scientist and the one who first discovered oxygen, was a writer before he was a scientist. And he was a writer with a Big Idea.

Priestly (1733-1804) lived in an age when interest in “natural philosophy,” what we would call “science” today, had exploded, and people were beginning to notice and discover things about the natural world they had never known before. One of the chief objects of this interest in “natural philosophy” was electricity, and Priestly’s natural curiosity sent his extraordinary mind in that direction.

He read whatever he could find about the subject, and that brought his attention to a group of men who were exploring the natural world in ways that had never been done before. The most eminent of those was Benjamin Franklin, possibly the most well-known non-royal in the Western world. 

In the 1760s, Franklin spent a good deal of time in England and met often with his group of natural philosophers (known as The Electricians).

In 1765, Priestly made his way to London from his home near Leeds, determined to introduce himself to Franklin and his group and propose his Big Idea.

In his reading about the group, Priestly had been frustrated by what he didn’t know. Most of what this group had discovered and the ideas and theories they had generated were confined to letters and papers they had shared among themselves. Priestly’s big idea was to change that by writing a book about them and their experiments.

To do that, however, he needed their help and cooperation.  So, on December 19, 1765, Priestly showed up at the London Coffee House next to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the group met. Franklin was there and so was John Canton and William Watson.

Priestly was warmly welcomed — and so was his idea.

They promised to share their correspondents and papers with him. They also encouraged Priestly to undertake and record experiments himself — advice that Priestly took to heart.

The result was a book published in 1767 titled The History and Present State of Electricity: With Original Experiments. It was a great success, going through five editions and translations into French and German.

The book changed the world’s view of science. In the words of Steven Johnson, author of a high readable biography of Priestly, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America:

He had invented a new way of imagining science: instead of a unified Newtonian presentment, Priestly recast natural philosophy as a story of progress, a rising staircase of enlightenment with each new innovation building on the last. (p. 34)

Science, in other words, was a narrative, not an argument with conclusions.

It was a brilliant formulation and typical of the type of creative thinking that Priestly engaged in during his life, not only in science but also in theology, politics, education, and grammar. (Yes, grammar, which we’ll explore in another post.)


The British Library upcoming 2019 exhibit: the history of writing

The British Library will host an exhibit on the history of writing in April 2019. If you are going to be in London between April and August of next year, this would be one of those must-see events.

Here’s how the library describes the exhibit:

The story unfolds through more than 100 objects from the British Library’s extensive collection – some on display for the very first time – bridging 5,000 years and spanning five continents.

Follow writing’s remarkable evolution through ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs carved on a stone monument and early examples of printed text such as the Mainz Psalter, to the art of note-taking as demonstrated by some of history’s greatest minds, and onwards to the ground-breaking digital communication tools we use today.

Source: Writing Making Your Mark – The British Library

You can book tickets at the link above.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

A recommendation for a winter read from The Talented Mr. Ripley

As we head into the depths of winter — don’t worry, Christmas will be over soon, and then we’ll find ourselves there — Emily Temple, a senior editor at the excellent website has a good reading recommendation: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.

It is, in my opinion, the perfect winter holiday book. It’s acrobatic and addictive reading, the prose sharp-edged and wry and sometimes quite pretty, and also it’s about warm weather and beautiful people, at least one of whom is decidedly amoral but perplexingly sympathetic. This, of course, is Tom Ripley, a small-time con-man who stumbles into a new life—one he will literally kill to keep. Source: A Close-Reading of The Talented Mr. Ripley as Coming of Age Story | Literary Hub

Even if you have seen the 1999 movie, which is packed with Matt Damon and other Hollywood stars, Temple says you should read the book to get the full impact of the author’s talent. Temple’s argument is well worth reading.

Patricia Highsmith created a character in Tom Ripley that outlived the end of the novel. She went on to write four more novels with Ripley as the main character. He is charming, attractive, and utterly amoral, and he always gets away with his murders. The five novels of Tom Ripley are today known as The Ripliad.


Radio dramas from the BBC Radio 4

One of the great pleasures I had when I spent a couple of multi-month stretches in Great Britain in the 1970s (London for eight months and Edinburgh for seven) was listening to the radio — specifically BBC Radio 4.

I didn’t have a television, but the radio dramas presented by the BBC more than satisfied my need for entertainment. In fact, I grew to prefer radio to television, which is a reason why podcasts are so charming for me.

Now, through the magic of the world wide web, anyone can listen to the BBC Radio 4 dramas. If you are interested, here’s where to start: BBC Radio 4 Extra – Agatha Christie, The Sittaford Mystery, The Message

This is the first of a five-part adaptation of an Agatha Christ mystery. Each episode is 30 minutes. Here’s the description:

A seance at a remote house spells out a man’s murder. Agatha Christie mystery with Geoffrey Whitehead as Inspector Narracott. From January 1990.

If you are interested, don’t wait. These dramas are available for a limited time. You’ll also find links to a Sherlock Holmes mystery, The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger.

Facebook’s public image deteriorates as more of its private actions come to light

After a scathing two-part documentary by Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline in October (The Facebook Dilemma, discussed in a post a couple of weeks ago), Facebook’s reputation as an idealist company that wants to change the world and do go continues to deteriorate.

Here’s the lead paragraph from a New York Times story (Facebook Used People’s Data to Favor Certain Partners and Punish Rivals, Documents Show – The New York Times) published this week:

Facebook used the mountains of data it collected on users to favor certain partners and punish rivals, giving companies such as Airbnb and Netflix special access to its platform while cutting off others that it perceived as threats.

There is also this from the New Yorker:  Facebook’s Very Bad Month Just Got Worse | The New Yorker

Facebook and founder Mark Zuckerberg are sticking with their insistence that Facebook has never sold personal data, but with everything that we know now, skepticism about that real truth of that statement grows. Things will probably get worse for Facebook, at least publically, before they get better.

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LuAnn R.: I loved your caricature in this newsletter—glad you intend to keep trying!

Bonnie R.: Have really enjoyed You Know Me Al. (Takes you)  back to the time when the whole family could go to a game.

Bonnie is referring to a post a couple of weeks ago on Ring Lardner and his book You Know Me Al.

Jim D.: I did not know of the bad blood between Bret Harte and Mark Twain. That’s troubling, and even more troubling is the way Twain handled it. Twain was a brilliant man. Too bad he became so embittered in his later years.

Hal M.: As a lover of good local honey I was sad to hear about the loss of your two hives.

Always try to buy local honey, as I told my good friend from high school days Hal M. The honey that is not local can easily be adulterated — and often is.

Finally . . .

This week’s drawing (pen and ink):  Joseph Priestly (caricature)

Best quote of the week:

If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. Robert Louis Stevenson, novelist, essayist, and poet (1850-1894) 

Helping those in need — in California, especially

Raging fires in California have killed dozens of people at this writing, and they’re still not under control. They have spread untold misery and disruption around the state. These people need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The father of modern caricature, bitterness among literary lights, and a view of personal technology: newsletter, Nov. 30, 2018



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