"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Top 5 Ancient And Medieval Censored Books To Read During Banned Book Week

The tactic of banning books is, to quote Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old as time. Yet it is rarely an effective method for halting the spread of information. The word censura (“censorship”) comes from the Latin verb censeo, which means to assess. Although publication took a different form prior to the printing press’s introduction to the West in 1450, there was still a great deal of textual censorship and numerous instances of book burning in the premodern Mediterranean. Here are just a few:

Statue of Abelard at Louvre Palace in Paris by Jules Cavelier (Image via Wikimedia).

5. Abelard (Burned his own book in 1121 CE): There can surely be nothing so painful as an author than being forced to burn your own book. This is precisely what the medieval philosopher and theologian Abelard was forced to do at the Council of Soissons in the twelfth century. As with many instances of book burning, it was a highly public act wherein he was forced to burn his book on the Holy Trinity. He was also sentenced to imprisonment in the Abbey of St. Medard, but he escaped to Troyes and continued to teach. Abelard may be best known for his love affair with Heloise (herself an exceptional philosopher and writer) and impromptu castration, but having to burn his own book publicly likely added insult to injury.

4. Ovid (Exiled in 8 CE): Although there were many private collections of books in the city, Rome’s public libraries did not open until the late first century BCE. During the reign of Augustus, the Temple of Apollo, the Atrium of Liberty and the Porticus of Octavia thrived as public libraries in Rome; however, the emperor still maintained control over the libraries’ contents. In 8 CE, he banned the poet Ovid to exile (a sentence called relegatio) and kept his racy Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”) from public libraries — though his other works appear to have remained available. From his exile on the Black Sea, Ovid wrote: “I come in fear, an exile’s book, sent to this city: kind reader, give me a gentle hand, in my weariness: don’t shun me in fear, in case I bring you shame: not a line of this paper teaches about love” (Tristia 3.3).

 3. Sappho (Burned in 1073 CE): Although the famed poet of Lesbos was born around 615 BCE it was not until over a millenium and a half later, in 1073, that Pope Gregory VII allegedly called for her writings to be burned in Rome. Rumors also circulated that bishop Gregory of Nazianzus had earlier ordered her poetry to be burned (in c.380 CE), but I can find no merit to this malicious rumor. The late antique Gregory in fact enjoyed and often paraphrased Sappho in his own poetry, making the later Gregory of the 11th century the likely culprit if there was in fact a mass burning of Sappho’s poetry at all. Regardless, you can read what we have left of her works here or read about the newly translated Sappho fragments here.

Most of Sappho's poetry is preserved in manuscripts of other ancient writers or on papyrus fragments, but part of one poem survives on a potsherd.[24] The papyrus pictured (left) preserves the Tithonus poem (fragment 58); the potsherd (right) preserves fragment 2.
An ostrakon that preserves fragment 2 of Sappho. Although most of her poetry was preserved on papyrus or in manuscripts from other writers, pot sherds also served as writing surfaces in antiquity (Image via Wikimedia).

(NB:  I should here state that the transition from the use of the scroll to the codex in the later Roman empire means that most earlier “book burnings” or “book bans” were actually more of a scroll burning or ban, but for alliteration’s sake, let’s just go with “book.”)

2. Manichaean Texts (297 or 302 & 923 CE): Under the emperor Diocletian (r.284-305 CE), the texts of the followers of Mani, the Manichaeans, were ordered to be burned, along with their leaders. The bishop Augustine wasn’t a fan either, and in a polemic around 400 CE against these followers, he wrote that the Manichaeans should, “burn all [their] parchments with their finely ornamented bindings; so you will be rid of a useless burden, and your God who suffers confinement in the volume will be set free.” As Dirk Rohmann has written in his new book, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, early Christians often spoke of books as a kind of body that demons could inhabit. What better way to kill these demons than to burn them? In the Near East, bags of “heretical” books of the Manichaeans, along with a portrait of Mani, were also burned in 923 CE. This was in Abbasid Baghdad, according to medieval Islamic historian Abu’l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi.

1.The Sibylline Books (Prophecies burned in the 6th c. BCE and 5th c. CE): The utterances of the Sibyl of Cumae were kept at Rome and overseen by the quindecimviri. The Greek verses had originally been brought to Rome either during the reign of the King Tarquinius Priscus, the legendary fifth king of Rome (r.616-579 BCE), or the last regal period king, Tarquinius Superbus (r.535-509 BCE). When a woman approached him to sell him nine scrolls, he refused her price. The woman went away and burned three of the nine books and then came back, asking for the same price as the first. Again, she was rebuffed and again she burned three of the remaining six. A final time she came back and asked for the same price for the remaining three as the nine scrolls originally pitched to Tarquin. This time, Tarquin was worried and asked Rome’s religious augurs what he should do. They replied that they were a gift from the Gods and he should buy them — so he did. Although the remaining scrolls were allegedly burned by Stilicho at the beginning of the 5th c. CE, the lesson here is to always buy a book from a persistent lady.
These are just a few instances of book burning or censorship in antiquity, but there are of course many more. I am sure I will receive mail about not including the Bible or other religious texts burned at various times, but the point here was to show that book censorship was usually a quite futile act. It frequently involved a public display in order to advertise the disdain of a group of people or of the state, but such tactics have only rarely kept works from being read completely. Book burning was much more detrimental to authors and their works in an era before the printing press — no doubt — but banning books was more a symbolic act than an effective censorship tactic. In fact, it usually makes us want to read the book even more.

Cumaean Sibyl, fresco painted by Michelangelo (1475-1564), Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) Rome, Vatican
 Cumaean Sibyl, fresco painted by Michelangelo (1475-1564), Sistine Chapel Ceiling (1508-1512) Rome, Vatican (Image via Wikimedia).

Sarah E. Bond is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. For more on ancient and medieval history, follow her @SarahEBond.

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How to Design Your Novel For Film Adaptation Guest Post on The Writer's Digest

Mid-career novelists seeking representation complain that none of their books have been made into films. At any given moment, we in Los Angeles have literally stacks of novels from New York publishers on our desks. Going through them to find the ones that might make motion pictures or television movies, we—and other producers, managers, and agents—are constantly running into the same problems:

atchity-ebookken-atchity-featuredThis guest post is by writer/editor/literary manager/producer Ken Atchity. Atchity has made hundreds of film and television deals for storytellers wanting their books to be films–including movies, series, and reality shows–since he began producing in 1987 after retiring from his tenured professorship at Occidental College. Also, as literary manager his authors have logged nearly twenty New York Times bestsellers. His own most recent novels are The Messiah Matrix and Brae Mackenzie. Dr. Atchity is also the creator of the free on-demand webinar presentation “Sell Your Story to Hollywood” for aspiring storytellers available at realfasthollywooddeal.com.

Common Problems in Novel-To-Film Adaptation

  • “There’s no third act…it just trickles out.”
  • “There are way too many characters and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”
  • “I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”
  • “At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist.”
  • “There’s not enough action.” Not just action but dramatic action.
  • “There’s nothing new here. This concept has been used to death.”/“We don’t know who to root for.”
  • “The whole thing is overly contrived.”
  • “There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the character sounds like.”
  • “There’s no high concept here or a new way into a familiar concept. How do we pitch this?”
  • “There’s no real pacing.”
  • “The protagonist is reactive instead of proactive.”
  • “At the end of the day, I have no idea what this story is ”
  • “The main character is 80, and speaks only Latvian.”
  • “There are no set pieces.”
Of course anyone with the mind of a researcher can list a film or two that got made despite one of these objections. But for novelists who are frustrated at not getting their books made into films that should be small consolation and is, practically speaking, a futile observation. Yes, you might get lucky and find a famous Bulgarian director, who’s fascinated with the angst of octogenarians, studied pacing with John Sales or Jim Jarmusch, and loves ambiguous endings.

But if you regard your career as a business instead of a quixotic crusade, you should be planning your novel at the drawing board to make it appealing to filmmakers.


Characters are the most important element of the story and should generate the action, the setting, and the point of view. Your job as a writer is to give us insight into each and every character in your story, no matter how evil or virtuous his or her actions may be. Characters are the heart of the drama.
    1. Give us a strong protagonist whose motivation and mission shape the action and who, good or bad, is eminently relatable—and who’s in the “star age range” of 35-50 (where at any given moment twenty male stars reside, and maybe ten female stars; a star being a name that can set up the film by his attachment to it).
    2. Make sure a dramatist looking at your book will clearly see three well-defined acts: act one (the setup), act two (rhythmic development, rising and falling action), and act three (climax leading to conclusive ending).
    3. Express your character’s personality in dialogue that distinguishes him, and makes him a role a star would die to play.
    4. Make sure your story has a clear-cut dramatic premise, e.g., unbridled ambition leads to self-destruction or you can’t go home again.
Have someone in the film industry read your synopsis or treatment before you commit to writing the novel.

Revise accordingly.

Though I’ve observed the phenomena for several decades now, it still surprises me that even bestselling novelists, even the ones who complain that no one has made a film from their books yet, don’t write novels dramatic enough to lend themselves easily to mainstream film. It’s a well-known, but lamentable, phenomenon in publishing that, with very few exceptions, the more books a novelist sells the less critical his publisher’s editors are of his work. So time and again we read novels that start out well, roar along to the halfway point, then peter off into the bogs of continuous character development or action resolution.

A publisher invests between $25,000 and $100,000 or more in publishing your novel. A low-budget feature film from a major Hollywood studio today costs at least $50 million. There is, from a business point of view, no comparison. Risking $50 million means the critical factor is raised as high as can be imagined when your book hits the “story department”—much higher than the critical factor of even the biggest publishers. Hollywood studies what audiences want by keeping track, in box office dollars, cents, and surveys–what they respond best to.

If you want to add film to your profit centers as a novelist, it would behoove you to study what makes films work. Disdaining Hollywood may be a fashionable defense for writers who haven’t gotten either rich or famous from it, but it’s not productive in furthering your cinematic career or building your retirement fund.

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brian-klems-2013Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter
Listen to Brian on: The Writer’s Market Podcast

‘Longmire’s Robert Taylor Joins Prehistoric Shark Tale ‘Meg

Robert Taylor is the latest addition to Jon Turteltaub’s giant-shark thriller Meg, Warner Bros’ upcoming adventure produced in conjunction with China-based banner Gravity. Taylor, the Aussie actor who stars in Netflix’s Western drama Longmire, will star alongside Jason Statham and Li Bingbing in the film. Longmire‘s fifth season starts streaming Friday.

Turteltaub directs Meg, an adaptation of Steve Alten’s 1997 novel, with Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, Belle Avery and Colin Wilson producing. The story, written by Dean Georgaris (with a rewrite from James Vanderbilt), follows a Navy deep-sea diver (Statham) whose military career ended in disgrace after his team encountered a living Megalodon, a prehistoric ancestor of the shark believed to reach up to 60 feet in length. With his team destroyed by the beast, he soon is offered a chance at redemption when the monster wreaks havoc off the coast of present-day China.

Wei Wayne Jiang, Barrie M. Osborne, Randy Greenberg and Gerald R. Molen exec produce with Flagship Entertainment, China Media Capital division Gravity Pictures and Warner Bros Pictures co-financing. Gravity Pictures will distribute the film in China, while Warner Bros handles the title throughout the rest of the world.

Cliff Curtis Joins Meg

Cliff Curtis has been set to star alongside Jason Statham in Warner Bros’ sci-fi action title Meg, directed by Jon Turtletaub.


Dean Georgaris adapts the script (with a rewrite from James Vanderbilt) from the 1997 novel by Steve Alten, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror. The story follows a Navy deep-sea diver whose military career ended in disgrace after his team encountered a living Megalodon, a prehistoric ancestor of the shark believed to reach up to 60 feet in length. With his team destroyed by the beast, he soon is offered a chance at redemption when an international underwater observation program led by Chinese scientists encounters the same beast after a volcanic eruption released it from an underwater trench into open water.

Curtis takes the role of the Operations Chief aboard the Mana One, joining Ruby Rose, Rainn Wilson and Chinese actress Li Bingbing in the cast.

New Zealand native Curtis stars on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead and recently produced and starred in New Zealand indie feature The Dark Horse, based on the true story of Kiwi chess player Genesis Potini who suffered from severe bipolar disorder. Curtis has had roles in such films as Live Free or Die Hard, Training Day, Three Kings and The Fountain. 

Little Big Crimes: A Fun little review of Dennis Palumbo's "A Theory of Murder"

A Theory of Murder, by Dennis Palumbo

"A Theory of Murder," by Dennis Palumbo, in And All Our Yesterdays, edited by Andrew MacRae, Darkhouse Books, 2015.

Mea culpa: It took me so long to get around to reading this book that I forgot how I received it.  I should say it was a gift from the publisher.

Wish I'd thought of that.

It's Bern, Switzerland, 1904.  Hector, a clerk in the patent office, is suspected of a series of grisly murders.  Luckily a friend of his, also a patent clerk, is looking into the crimes.  And Albert Einstein is a pretty bright guy...

You may know that 1905 was the "Annus Mirabilis" in which Einstein published four papers that turned Physics on its head.  In this story we see him pondering on some of these points, providing some of the most amusing moments.

For example, he shows up at Hector's house in the middle of the night:

"My God, Albert, do you know the time?"

"More intimately than most, I promise you." 

A very clever story.

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Dennis Palumbo's historical short story is titled, "A Theory of Murder," and originally appeared in The Strand Magazine. Featuring a young Albert Einstein as an amateur sleuth.

An anthology of historical mysteries from DarkHouse Books. Available as both an e-book and a paperback.

purchase on Amazon.com

He writes every day ...

The Conditioned from Facebook Stories on Vimeo.

Raimundo Arruda Sobrinho was homeless in São Paulo, Brazil, for nearly 35 years, and became locally known for sitting in the same spot and writing every day. In April 2011, he was befriended by a young woman named Shalla Monteiro. Impressed by his poetry and wanting to help him with his dream of publishing a book, she created a Facebook Page to feature Raimundo’s writing. Neither could have expected what happened next.

Celebrities Toast to Sober Film Festival: Screening of Alcoholics Anonymous Classics Written by author William Borchert

Writers In Treatment is bringing its Los Angeles based REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium to CINEMA VILLAGE, 22 W. 12th St., NY, NY 10003, from Sept. 23 - Sept. 28.

All films $10.00

This 7-day film festival and recovery symposium is a celebration of film, the arts, creativity, recovery from substance abuse and alcohol addiction. Showcased are filmmakers who make honest films about addiction, alcoholism, behavioral disorders, treatment and living sober. Slated for screening is an eclectic lineup of contemporary and classic films, documentaries and shorts from first-time filmmakers and industry veterans.

Screening of Alcoholics Anonymous Classics Written by author William Borchert: My Name is Bill W. Starring James woods and James Gardener & When Love is not Enough- The Lois Wilson Story - Starring Winona Ryder and Barry Pepper 

LIVE IN PERSON: Q & A with William Borchert (between screenings) discussing the books behind the films and filming of "My Name is Bill W," and Bill will also be signing his newest book, "How I Became My Father...A Drunk

The REEL Recovery Film Festival & Symposium also plays in: LOS ANGELES, CA Oct. 20-27, FT. LAUDERDALE, FL NOV. 2-5, DENVER, tba, HOUSTON, tba.

Primary sponsors: Best Drug Rehabilitation, Tres Vista, Recovery Centers of America, and Betty Ford Center.

About Writers In Treatment

Writers In Treatment is an organization whose primary purpose is to save lives through free referrals guiding individuals towards 'treatment' as the best first step solution for addiction, alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors. They also offer educational, prevention and awareness programs that help reduce the stigma of addictive disorders. Their REEL Recovery Film Festivals provide Entertainment, Education and Inspiration to men and women suffering from addictive disorders, those in recovery or those on the cusp.

For more information: Leonard Buschel 818-762-0461.

President Emeritus Richard Gilman Dies at Age 92

Named Occidental's tenth president in 1965, by the time Gilman retired in 1988 after 23 years of distinguished service he had signed more than half of the diplomas the College awarded during its first century.

Occidental College President Emeritus Richard GilmanI kept in touch with Richard Gilman over the years, the President of Occidental when I was there. He was a constant encouragement to continue pushing the envelope—despite complaints from fellow faculty that “I was doing too much.” “You’ll never have a problem with me,” he said. “Keep doing what you’re doing.” He was indeed constantly working the room, introducing himself as “President Gilman.” One Beverly Hills matron responded: “President of what?” I loved that. May he rest in that great Ivory Tower in the sky.

Advice To Writers Interviews Kenneth Atchity


WRITERLY WISDOM OF THE AGES / Collected by Jon Winokur

How did you become a writer?
I don’t remember ever not being a writer, though I’m sure it was my mother’s fault. She’d sit me down at the kitchen table and insist that I write because she knew I had the storytelling genes of her Cajun family in me.

What are your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.)?
Aside from Mom, I was inspired and egged on by teachers in elementary, high school, and college—many through their example. My Yale mentor Tom Bergin published around 60 books BEFORE he retired, then another 20 or so after retirement, illustrating my favorite quote from Benjamin Franklin: “I see nothing wrong with retirement as long as it does not interfere with a man’s work.” Novelist John Gardner was my first and toughest editor, who weaned me from academic writing and taught me to write to be helpful or entertaining—or both. My favorite writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Robert Ludlum (when he was alive), Carson McCullers (“I can’t stand the word ‘prose’; it’s too prosaic.”), and some of the writers I’ve managed or published including Martin Ott, Misti Mosteller, Jerry Amernic, Milton Lyles and John Scott Shepherd.

When and where do you write?
I write anywhere (right now I’m writing on a flight between Dublin and Newark), including at my desk every day I’m home, on the airplane, train, bus, car (while someone else is driving)—the more exotic location, the better. I also write any time of the day, though much prefer the early morning before the phone, email, and texts begin. You’ll never experience writer’s block if you follow my simple rule: Never sit down to write without knowing what you’re going to write when you sit down.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new nonfiction book about “how to get your story to the screen”; a second “romance of mythic identity,” this one set in Naples; and the Louisiana volume of my memoirs—as well as an article about “yoga and the myth of the world tree.”

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
See above. Norman Mailer said, “Writer’s block is a failure of the ego.” And Ray Bradbury: “Start doing more. It’ll get rid of all those moods you’re having!” When you think you’re blocked, you’re not. You just need to take a long walk and let your story figure itself out again so you can sit back down and write it. Good writing should be “automatic writing.”

What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t confuse writing with rewriting. If you try to do both at the same time, you’ll sabotage yourself. Rewriting is what you start doing when you’ve completed your first draft. Good luck to you all.
Former professor Ken Atchity is a writer (of novels and nonfiction), producer of films for television and theater, literary manager, and publisher (Story Merchant Books). 

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