11 Things You May Not Know About The Giver

istock collage
istock collage

Lois Lowry’s 1993 young adult hit The Giver has a more complex history than you may have known.

1. A visit to Lowry’s father in a nursing home helped inspire the novel. 

In his later years, Lowry’s father lost much of his long-term memory, which got Lowry thinking about the power and importance of memories: Without them, there can be no pain. She began to imagine a society where the past was deliberately forgotten so that the members could live in “peaceful ignorance.” This version of reality may relieve the people of pain, but its fatal flaw is that it also takes away valuable connections to the past and the possibility of lasting human relationships. 

In a 1994 speech, Lowry touched on this visit and the questions it sparked: “We can forget pain, I think. And it is comfortable to do so. But I also wonder briefly: is it safe to do that, to forget?” 

2. The Giver on the cover was celebrated in his own right. 

In 1979, years before she wrote The Giver, Lowry was working as a journalist when she interviewed painter Carl Gustaf Nelson. The Swedish-born painter had lived in New York and taught painting in Boston before retiring to Maine’s Cranberry Island. Nelson’s art earned him spots in prestigious shows like the Whitney Biennial, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection contains two of his pieces. Lowry visited Nelson at his home off the coast of Maine, and while there she got the chance to photograph him. 

3. Nelson may also have inspired the Giver. 

In her 1994 Newbery Award acceptance speech, Lowry reminisced about meeting Nelson: “I spend a good deal of time with this man, and we talk a lot about color. It is clear to me that although I am a highly visual person—a person who sees and appreciates form and composition and color—this man’s capacity for seeing color goes far beyond mine … Now and then I wish, in a whimsical way, that he could have somehow magically given me the capacity to see the way he did.” 

4. Nelson had something in common with the Giver.

Nelson passed away in 1988, but his face stuck with Lowry. She loved the interesting picture of Nelson so much that she held on to it, and later turned it into cover art. The choice of Nelson as the cover model would turn out to have a deeper meaning for Lowry. The artist had spent the last few years of his life in blindness, which sparked a connection. As Lowry explained in a 2006 interview with Teachingbooks.net, “[His] life was filled with color … for him to lose color, as the Giver in the book begins to lose color, seemed such a wonderful analogy that I’ve always been glad his photograph is on the cover.” 

5. Some readers condemn the book as pro-euthanasia or pro-abortion. 

The book’s concept of “release,” depicted by a man killing a newborn baby with a lethal injection, has been cited as evidence that Lowry is promoting euthanasia, suicide, or possibly abortion, but she debunks these theories. She says that those sorts of accusations are often from people who haven’t read the book thoroughly, and therefore are missing her point altogether.

6. The book received some harsh reviews …

Like many successful YA novels, The Giver hasn’t been a critical darling. Author Debra Doyle complained, “Personal taste aside, The Giver fails the Plausibility Test for me. … Things are the way they are because The Author is Making a Point; things work out the way they do because The Author’s Point Requires It.” 

7. … But it won over other critics. 

On the other hand, The New York Times’ Karen Ray wrote that although there were “occasional logical lapses,” the book is still “sure to keep older children reading. And thinking.” Lowry also claimed the annual Newbery Award for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." 

More importantly, the novel reached its target audience. It resonated with young readers so well that it’s sold over 12 million copies. A 2003 review by Rome, Ga., seventh-grader Michael Butler leads off with a view that’s shared by many of his peers: “The Giver is one of the many great books in our society today.” 

8. Lowry got the news of her Newbery win in an odd place.

Lowry had already won the medal in 1990 for Number the Stars, but the committee had trouble locating her to share the good news about her second win in 1994. Eventually, the committee reached the author by radiogram, a necessary step since she was traveling in Antarctica. “I was feeling on top of the world, though, technically speaking, I was actually at the bottom,” she quips on her personal website. 

9. It took Jeff Bridges over 20 years to turn the book into a film. 

The actor became interested in adapting the novel for the screen in the early ‘90s but repeatedly got jammed up by studios and battles over ownership rights. The original plan was for Bridges to direct his father, Lloyd Bridges, in the title role, but this plan was canceled with the elder Bridges’ death in 1998. The film remained stuck in development hell for almost 15 years until Bridges was given the green light in 2012. The movie was released in 2014 starring Bridges (as the Giver), Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan, and featuring Katie Holmes, Alexander Skarsgård, and Taylor Swift.

10. Readers inundated Lowry with questions about the ending … 

Lowry loved the novel’s ambiguous ending, but it drove readers crazy. She even mentioned it in her Newbery speech: “Those of you who hoped that I would stand here tonight and reveal the ‘true’ ending, the ‘right’ interpretation of the ending, will be disappointed. There isn’t one. There’s a right one for each of us, and it depends on our own beliefs, our own hopes.” 

Lowry was so sold on the novel’s ambiguity that she even told interviewers that she would never write a sequel to clarify Jonas’s fate even as reader letters requesting closure flooded her mailbox. 

11. ... until she finally gave in. 

The passionate reader reaction made Lowry reconsider her anti-sequel stance. In a 2012 interview in Entertainment Weekly she explained, “I didn’t have any intention of writing a sequel. I liked the ambiguity of the ending. Over the years, though, it became clear that younger readers in particular did not.”  

Lowry set out to give the people what they wanted, a mission that yielded three more novels. Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son round out the “loose quartet” set in this universe, but Lowry did not intend to create a series. In an interview with The Wire in 2012, Lowry said, “I had not intended [Gathering Blue] as even related to The Giver, I was creating another interesting world, to me, where things were different, and as I went along I realized I could answer some questions … I put in, at the end of Gathering Blue, the reference to the boy Jonas. … Four years later I did the third book, and they were not sequels, really, they were set at a different place at more or less the same time.”

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Shakespeare's Co-Writer on 'Henry VIII'

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

William Shakespeare has long been celebrated as the greatest playwright of all time (and he's certainly the most quoted). Historians have speculated whether his name might be a pseudonym for a lesser-known writer or whether he had assistance in composing his plays, among other theories. In 2016, Oxford University Press credited Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe as co-writer of three plays in Henry VI.

Now, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Shakespeare’s sole authorship, this time for Henry VIII. According to an analysis [PDF] published prior to peer review on arXiv.org, the Bard wrote roughly half of Henry VIII. His contemporary, playwright John Fletcher, wrote the rest.

The conclusion was based on the findings of an algorithm taught to examine word choice and writing style, created by researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The program first "learned" each writer’s approach to their craft by reading four plays by Fletcher and by Shakespeare, written at about the same time. The algorithm identified traits unique to each. Fletcher, for example, tended to use ye instead of you, or ‘em in place of them.

The algorithm was then applied to Henry VIII. It earmarked the first two scenes as being written by Shakespeare. Fletcher wrote the next four. The writers' styles then mixed until later in the play, when Shakespeare’s voice appeared to take hold.

Collaboration among playwrights was common in the era, and scholars have long believed Fletcher was somehow involved—possibly assisting an aging Shakespeare.

Nineteenth-century literary analyst James Spedding theorized in 1850 that Fletcher had co-written the play; Fletcher had succeeded Shakespeare as the house playwright of the King’s Men Acting Company following the Bard's death in 1616. Spedding even surmised who wrote which scene. This most recent analysis loosely lines up with his findings.

[h/t Smithsonian]

11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

An old photo of the Angels Hotel
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A cover of an old copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend, Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Mark Twain standing near a window while wearing a white suit and smoking a pipe
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

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