There must be something magical in the air of Great Britain. Some atmospheric spark finds home in the bellies of its artists; their works of music, art, architecture, and literature emanate a genius glow. I can’t explain how many of my favorite musicians and authors hail from this small isle, people like Boards of Canada, Radiohead, and Bernard Cornwell. The creative streak appears to be especially powerful in Scotland, and, as hinted at by my trusty Kindle, Edinburgh in particular.
The Kindle is just another in a long line of overt threats to my bank account, but Amazon also makes available a huge selection of free classics. Naturally, I started downloading book after free book with a kind of sickening glee, and the first book I started reading was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I was blown away. The prose was tight, the story was gripping, and this was the genesis of so many pirate memes. It’s possible I might’ve stomped around the house while spitting piratical epithets and “Yarrr!”-ing for a few weeks (the beard helps). How had I not read this before? Curse my backwater primary school’s limp English lit department!
Yes, Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scot, but he was also from Edinburgh, and this knowledge triggered a memory of the enormous Sir Walter Scott (himself a famous author) monument towering over Princes Street (also in Edinburgh). Within minutes I was 18 tabs deep in Firefox reading about Edinburgh’s impressive literary history. Check out these interesting facts:
- Edinburgh was named the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. This is a permanent, non-competitive designation. The Edinburgh City of Literature site is loaded with news, events, and media surrounding its authors and their works.
- Speaking of authors, Edinburgh was the home of luminaries like Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, J.M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Kenneth Grahame among many others. Today, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, and J.K. Rowling call the city home.
- Collectively, these authors wrote classics like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Waverly, Peter Pan, the Sherlock Holmes novels, The Wind in the Willows, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Wealth of Nations, the Inspector Rebus novels, and the Harry Potter novels. And this is just a sample.
- Not only that, Sir Walter Scott is generally credited with inventing (or least making popular) the genre of historical fiction. As fans of Bernard Cornwell and Diana Gabaldon, my wife and I rejoice. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also credited with redefining the genre of crime fiction with his Sherlock Holmes series.
- Every August, Edinburgh is home to the world’s largest international book festival. The city is also home to some 80 publishing houses, 45 bookshops, and 140 libraries. The Encyclopedia Britannica (remember that?) was first published in Edinburgh.
- There are book fairs in hotels in Edinburgh year-round. In fact, there’s a massive book fair during the weekend of March 12 & 13 that I plan to canvas.
- A horde of literature-related buildings litter the city, including the Writer’s Museum, Scottish Poetry Library, Scottish Storytelling Centre, National Library of Scotland, Scottish Book Trust, Makars’ Court, and Canongate Books.
- Finally, there are many literary tours offered throughout the city, my favorite being the Literary Pub Tour, which manages to produce a pleasant cocktail of humor, information, and drunkenness.
There is some secret in the wynds and closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town, in the geometric lanes of the New Town, waiting to be discovered. There must be, for I can find no evidence to explain this volume of important literary antecedents.
In these five weeks before I travel to Edinburgh, I’ve got a digital stack of novels to read that will, perhaps, shed some light on this magic city. I’m on a mission to comb the streets and neighborhoods of Edinburgh with an eye toward its literary heritage. But I won’t shed a tear if the magic escapes me. After all, isn’t the “magic” of something derived from our inability to comprehend and explain it?
I’ll be happy if some tiny spark manages to find a home in my belly.