Literature

Truth and Fiction

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In Lillian Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, she describes a childhood friend whom she calls “Julia” who became active in the Austrian underground during World War II. The book was made into the Oscar-winning 1977 film Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

But after the book appeared, readers noticed something peculiar. Julia strongly resembled a real person, Muriel Gardiner, a psychoanalyst. Both women were millionaires’ daughters who had attended Wellesley and Oxford, moved to Vienna to study with Freud, bore daughters, became socialists, and participated in anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi activities before the war. But where Gardiner sailed for the United States in 1939, Hellman’s Julia was tortured to death by Nazis. Hellman claimed that she flew the body home but had it cremated when she was unable to find Julia’s mother.

Despite all these similarities, Hellman insisted that Julia was a different person and said she had never heard of Gardiner. “She may have been the model for somebody else’s Julia,” she told the New York Times, “but she was certainly not the model for my Julia.” She said she refused to reveal her own Julia’s name for personal and legal reasons.

Gardiner wrote to Hellman in 1976, inquiring about all this, but never received a reply. She had kept silent about her activities for 40 years — but it’s notable that lawyer Wolf Schwabacher had socialized with Hellman in Europe while Gardiner was opposing Fascism in Vienna, and also shared a house with Gardiner after the war.

Food Fight

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W.S. Gilbert’s neighbor in the country was a partner in a firm that was famous for its relishes, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves. He had been made a baronet but “had grown very touchy about the source of his wealth and his title,” recalled DeWolf Hopper, “and was rather a hoity-toity neighbor.”

One day Gilbert’s dogs killed some pheasants on the man’s property, and he wrote a curt note of protest to the author. Gilbert wrote back:

Dear Sir Alfred:

I am extremely sorry about the loss of your pheasants, and I am taking steps to prevent my dogs from trespassing on your preserves in the future.

Sincerely,

W.S. Gilbert

P.S. You will pardon my use of the word ‘preserves,’ won’t you?

In his 1927 autobiography, Hopper also recalls:

Someone once challenged Gilbert to make up a verse offhand riming the words ‘Timbuctoo’ and ‘cassowary’. He studied for a moment and recited:

If I were a cassowary in Timbuctoo,
I’d eat a missionary and his hymn book too.

Quick Thinking

From a letter by Lewis Carroll, about 1848:

I have not yet been able to get the second volume Macaulay’s ‘England’ to read. I have seen it however and one passage struck me when seven bishops had signed the invitation to the pretender, and King James sent for Bishop Compton (who was one of the seven) and asked him ‘whether he or any of his ecclesiastical brethren had anything to do with it?’ He replied, after a moment’s thought ‘I am fully persuaded your majesty, that there is not one of my brethren who is not as innocent in the matter as myself.’

“This was certainly no actual lie,” Carroll wrote, “but certainly, as Macaulay says, it was very little different from one.”

Early Adopter

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Mark Twain boasted both that “I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house” and that “I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature.” The latter may be true — Twain began experimenting with a Remington No. 2 typewriter in 1874. He reckoned that the book must have been Tom Sawyer; in fact it was probably Life on the Mississippi.

Other writers have been slower to adopt new technology. “This is a nervous letter,” wrote Flannery O’Connor to Cecil Dawkins in 1959. “I am congratulating you on the electric typewriter. It is very nice but I am not used to it yet. I keep thinking about all the electricity that is being wasted while I think what I am going to say next.”

“By Deputy”

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As Shakespeare couldn’t write his plays
(If Mrs. Gallup’s not mistaken),
I think how wise in many ways
He was to have them done by Bacon;
They might have moldered on the shelf,
Mere minor dramas (and he knew it!),
If he had written them himself
Instead of letting Bacon do it.

And if it’s true, as Brown and Smith
In many learned tomes have stated,
That Homer was an idle myth,
He ought to be congratulated,
Since thus, evading birth, he rose
For men to worship at a distance;
He might have penned inferior prose
Had he achieved a real existence.

To him and Shakespeare men agree
In making very nice allusions;
But no one thinks of praising me,
For I compose my own effusions;
As others wrote their works divine
And they immortal thus today are,
Perhaps had someone written mine
I might have been as great as they are.

— Arthur St. John Adcock

Howdunit

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Raymond Chandler’s 10 rules for writing a detective novel:

  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. … If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.

That’s from Chandler’s notebooks. As it happens, Dashiell Hammett, Ronald Knox, and S.S. Van Dine all came up with similar lists. Mystery writers must be very methodical people.

Byplay

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In illustrating his Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling hid messages in the runic characters accompanying some drawings. The tusk above illustrates “How the First Letter Was Written”:

Left side: “This is the stori of Taffimai all ritten out on an old tusk. If u begin at the top left hand corner and go on to the right u can see for urself things as the happened.”

Right side: “The reason that I spell so queerli is becase there are not enough letters in the Runic alphabet for all the ourds that I ouant to use to u o beloved.”

Bottom (barely visible here): “This is the identical tusk on ouich the tale of Taffimai was ritten and etched bi the author.”

https://books.google.com/books?id=exoqAAAAYAAJ

The initial “H” at the start of the “Cat That Walked by Himself” hides another message using the same characters: “I, Rudiard Kipling, drew this, but because there was no mutton bone in the house I faked the anatomi from memori.”

“Are these really Runic letters or just an alphabet that Kipling made up for fun?” asked Maj. B.J. Bewley in the Kipling Journal in January 1928. “I think the chief interest lies in the almost boyish pleasure the author plainly took in writing in these strange characters. He must have done it entirely for his own amusement.”

Podcast Episode 58: English as She Is Spoke

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In 1855 Pedro Carolino decided to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook despite the fact that he didn’t actually speak English. The result is one of the all-time masterpieces of unintentional comedy, a language guide full of phrases like “The ears are too length” and “He has spit in my coat.” In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample Carolino’s phrasebook, which Mark Twain called “supreme and unapproachable.”

We’ll also hear Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” rendered in jargon and puzzle over why a man places an ad before robbing a bank.

Sources for our feature on Pedro Carolino’s disastrous phrasebook:

English as She is Spoke: Or, A Jest in Sober Earnest, 1883.

(This edition, like many, incorrectly names José da Fonseca as a coauthor. Fonseca was the author of the Portuguese-French phrasebook that Carolino used for the first half of his task. By all accounts that book is perfectly competent, and Fonseca knew nothing of Carolino’s project; Carolino added Fonseca’s name to the byline to lend some credibility to his own book.)

The Writings of Mark Twain, Volume 6.

Carolino’s misadventure inspired some “sequels” by other authors:

English as She Is Wrote (1883)

English as She Is Taught (1887)

As long as we’re at it, here’s Monty Python’s “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch:

Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy rendered in jargon, from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916):

To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Lawrence Miller, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Podcast Episode 57: Jules Verne’s Lost Novel

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Eight decades after Jules Verne’s death, his great-grandson opened a family safe and discovered an unpublished manuscript. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review some of Verne’s remarkable predictions for the 20th century and consider why he never published the novel.

We’ll also discuss listeners’ ideas about the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet ski hikers in 1959 and puzzle over how a man’s breakfast turns deadly.

Sources for our feature on Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century:

Arthur B. Evans, “The ‘New’ Jules Verne,” Science-Fiction Studies, March 1995.

Brian Taves, “Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century,” Science-Fiction Studies, March 1997.

Jules Verne, Paris in the Twentieth Century, 1863.

Sources for listener mail:

“‘Partially Digested’ Human Head, Leg Found Inside Shark Caught by Filipino Fishermen,” Fox News Latino, Nov. 12, 2014 (accessed May 8, 2015).

Donnie Eichar, Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, 2013.

Jason Zasky, “Return to Dead Mountain,” Failure Magazine, Feb. 1, 2014.

Greg’s article on animal infrasound appeared in the January-February 2004 issue of American Scientist.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle comes from Jed’s List of Situation Puzzles, suggested to us by listener David Morgan.

This episode is sponsored by our patrons and by The Great Courses — go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com/closet to order from eight of their best-selling courses at up to 80 percent off the original price.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. And you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

Tell Me, O Muse

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Samuel Butler believed Homer was “a very young woman” living in Sicily. In his 1897 book The Authoress of the Odyssey he argues that the events in the poem fit neatly onto the province of Trapani and its islands. And a careful reading of the action, he says, reveals “jealousy for the honour and dignity of woman, severity against those who have disgraced their sex, love of small religious observances, of preaching, of white lies and small play-acting, of having things both ways, and of money.”

I have touched briefly on all the more prominent female characters of the ‘Odyssey.’ The moral in every case seems to be that man knows very little, and cannot be trusted not to make a fool of himself even about the little that he does know, unless he has a woman at hand to tell him what he ought to do. There is not a single case in which a man comes to the rescue of female beauty in distress; it is invariably the other way about.

“Moreover there are many mistakes in the ‘Odyssey’ which a young woman might easily make, but which a man could hardly fall into — for example, making the wind whistle over the waves at the end of Book ii., thinking that a lamb could live on two pulls a day at a ewe that was already milked (ix. 244, 245, and 308, 309), believing a ship to have a rudder at both ends (ix. 483, 540), thinking that dry and well-seasoned timber can be cut from a growing tree (v. 240), [and] making a hawk while still on the wing tear its prey — a thing that no hawk can do (xv. 527).” He didn’t find many supporters, but Robert Graves took up the idea in his 1955 novel Homer’s Daughter.

Insight

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Maxims of François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680):

  • “An extraordinary Haste to discharge an Obligation is a Sort of Ingratitude.”
  • “Did we not flatter ourselves, the Flattery of others could never hurt us.”
  • “Before we passionately desire a Thing, we should examine into the Happiness of its Possessor.”
  • “Few Men are able to know all the Ill they do.”
  • “Fortune never seems so blind to any as to those on whom she bestows no Favours.”
  • “Happiness is in the Taste, not in the Thing; and we are made happy by possessing what we love, not what others think lovely.”
  • “Men may boast of their great Actions; but they are oftner the Effects of Chance, than of Design.”
  • “The Glory of great Men ought always to be rated according to the Means used to acquire it.”
  • “We should manage our Fortune as our Constitution; enjoy it when good, have Patience when ’tis bad, and never apply violent Remedies but in Cases of Necessity.”
  • “We bear, all of us, the Misfortunes of other People with heroic Constancy.”
  • “Whatever great Advantages Nature can give, she can’t without Fortune’s Concurrence make Heroes.”

And “Hope, deceitful as it is, carries us thro’ Life agreeably enough.”

Misc

  • The clock face on the Marienkirche in Bergen auf Rügen, Germany, has 61 minutes. Does this mean time moves more slowly there — or more quickly?
  • To ensure quiet, poet Amy Lowell hired five rooms at every hotel — her own and those on either side, above, and below.
  • A perplexing sentence from a letter by Dorothy Osborne, describing shepherdesses in Bedfordshire, May 1653: “They want nothing to make them the happiest people in the world but the knowledge that they are so.”
  • OVEREFFUSIVE is a palindrome in Scrabble — its letter values are 141114411141. (Discovered by Susan Thorpe.)
  • The sum of the digits of every multiple of 2739726 up to the 72nd is 36. (E.M. Langley, Mathematical Gazette, 1896)
  • I’ll bet I have more money in my pocket than you do. (Of course I do — you have no money in my pocket!)
  • In 1996 a model airplane enthusiast was operating a remote-controlled plane in Phoenix Park in Dublin when the receiver died and the plane flew off on its own. It flew five miles to the northeast, ran out of fuel, and glided to a landing … on the taxi-way to Runway 28 at Dublin Airport.

(Thanks, Brian and Breffni.)

A New Line

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In 1948, as T.S. Eliot was departing for Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize, a reporter asked which of his books had occasioned the honor.

Eliot said, “I believe it’s given for the entire corpus.”

The reporter said, “And when did you publish that?”

Eliot later said, “It really might make a good title for a mystery — The Entire Corpus.”

Unquote

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“It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible.” — George Bernard Shaw

“People think that because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.” — Anthony Powell

“I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” — Philip Roth

Oops

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Robert Barker and Martin Lucas overlooked a crucial not in their Bible published in 1631. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes, “The fine of £300 helped to ruin the printer.” Further Bible errata:

  • In Myles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, Psalm 91:5 read “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (rather than terror).
  • The “Cannibal Bible,” printed at Amsterdam in 1682, included the sentence “If the latter husband ate her [for hate her], her former husband may not take her again” (Deuteronomy 24:3).
  • In the “Camel’s Bible” of 1823, Genesis 24:61 reads “And Rebekah arose, and her camels [for damsels].”
  • In an edition published in Charles I’s reign, Psalm 14:1 read “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God.” The printers were fined £3,000, and all copies were suppressed.
  • The “Lions Bible” of 1804 contains the phrase “but thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions [for loins]” (Kings 8:19). In Galatians 5:17 it reads “For the flesh lusteth after the Spirit [for against the Spirit].”
  • In the second edition of the Geneva Bible, 1562, Matthew 5:9 reads “Blessed are the placemakers [peacemakers]: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Also, the chapter heading for Luke 21 has “Christ condemneth the poor widow” rather than “commendeth.”)
  • A 1702 edition has David complain that “printers [princes] have persecuted me without a cause.” (Psalm 119:161)
  • In a 1716 Bible first printed in Ireland, John 5:14 read “sin on more” rather than “sin no more.” “The mistake was undiscovered until 8,000 copies had been printed and bound.”
  • The “Affinity Bible” of 1923 contains a table of affinity with the error “A man may not marry his grandmother’s wife.”
  • In the “Standing Fishes Bible” of 1806, Ezekiel 47:10 reads “And it shall come to pass that the fishes [fishers] shall stand upon it.”
  • A Cambridge printing of 1653 reads “know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God?” instead of “shall not inherit.” (I Corinthians 6:9)
  • In the “Wife-Beater’s Bible” of 1549, Edmund Becke inserted a footnote to I Peter 3:7 reading “And if she be not obediente and healpeful unto hym, endevoureth to beate the fere of God into her heade, that thereby she may be compelled to learne her dutye and do it.”

In one edition published in 1944, a broken bit of type in I Peter 3:5 caused own to appear as owl, producing the alarming sentence “For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.”

The High Road

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Editorial guidelines from Spicy Detective magazine, 1935:

  1. In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
  2. If it is necessary for the story to have the girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details. …
  3. Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip to her underwear or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin torn shred of her garments, but while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
  4. A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.
  5. Also a girl undressing in the privacy of her own room, but when men are in the action try to keep at least a shred of something on the girls.
  6. Do not have men in underwear in scenes with women, and no nude men at all.

“The idea is to have a very strong sex element in these stories without anything that might be intrepreted as being vulgar or obscene.”

(From Nicholas Parsons, The Book of Literary Lists, 1987.)

Podcast Episode 51: Poet Doppelgängers

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In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers — at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere. We’ll also share our readers’ research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport.

Sources for our feature on poet doppelgängers:

John Oxenford, trans., The Autobiography of Wolfgang von Goethe, 1969.

G. Wilson Knight, Byron and Shakespeare, 2002.

Julian Marshall, The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1889.

Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen, 2013.

W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947.

The stories are recounted in the corresponding posts on Futility Closet: Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Owen, Powys.

Listener mail:

Little House of Cats has a photo of Cervino, the (purported) Matterhorn-scaling kitty cat of 1950.

The Daily Mail has photos of Millie, Utah mountaineer Craig Armstrong’s rock-climbing cat. More at Back Country.

Further data on cat rambles:

BBC News, “Secret Life of the Cat: What Do Our Feline Companions Get Up To?”, June 12, 2013 (accessed March 26, 2015).

National Geographic, “Watch: How Far Do Your Cats Roam?”, Aug. 8, 2014 (accessed March 26, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles are from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

New Tropes for Old

In an 1810 satire, C.L. Pitt noted that “a novel may be made out of a romance, or a romance out of a novel with the greatest ease, by scratching out a few terms, and inserting others.” The steps below will, “like machinery in factories,” convert a Gothic romance into a sentimental novel:

Where you find:              Put:

A castle                     An house
A cavern                     A bower
A groan                      A sigh
A giant                      A father
A bloodstained dagger        A fan
Howling blasts               Zephyrs
A knight                     A gentleman without whiskers
A lady who is the heroine    Need not be changed, being versatile
Assassins                    Telling glances
A monk                       An old steward
Skeletons, skulls, etc.      Compliments, sentiments etc.
A gliding ghost              A usurer, or an attorney
A witch                      An old housekeeper
A wound                      A kiss
A midnight murder            A marriage

“The same table of course answers for transmuting a novel into a romance.”

(From a footnote in Pitt’s The Age: A Poem, Moral, Political, and Metaphysical, With Illustrative Annotations, 1810.)

Wish List

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I may as well just tell you a few of the things I like, and then, whenever you want to give me a birthday present (my birthday comes once every seven years, on the fifth Tuesday in April) you will know what to give me. Well, I like, very much indeed, a little mustard with a bit of beef spread thinly under it; and I like brown sugar — only it should have some apple pudding mixed with it to keep it from being too sweet; but perhaps what I like best of all is salt, with some soup poured over it. The use of the soup is to hinder the salt from being too dry; and it helps to melt it. Then there are other things I like; for instance, pins — only they should always have a cushion put round them to keep them warm. And I like two or three handfuls of hair; only they should always have a little girl’s head beneath them to grow on, or else whenever you open the door they get blown all over the room, and then they get lost, you know.

— Lewis Carroll, letter to Jessie Sinclair, Jan. 22, 1878

Human Relations

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Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:

  • To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
  • Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
  • When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
  • When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
  • In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
  • When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
  • Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
  • Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.

Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”

Critical Sensitivity

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Alexander Woollcott set a world record for the shortest review of a Broadway play.

The play was titled Wham!

Woollcott’s review, in full, read “Ouch!”

Unshelved

Nominations are currently open for the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. This year’s candidates:

  • Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen
  • Advanced Pavement Research, edited by Bo Tian
  • The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing-Loh
  • Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson
  • Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the People That Used to Love Them, by Diana Rajchel
  • The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home, by Melissa Margaret Schneider
  • Strangers Have the Best Candy, by Margaret Meps Schulte

Recent winners have included How to Poo on a Date, by Mats & Enzo (2013), Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley (2012), Cooking With Poo, by Saiyuud Diwong (2011), Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way, by Michael R. Young (2010), and Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina (2009).

You can vote here. “This is one of strongest years I have seen in more than three decades of administering the prize, which highlights the crème de la crème of unintentionally nonsensical, absurd and downright head-scratching titles,” said The Bookseller‘s Horace Bent, who organizes the contest. “Let other awards cheer the contents within, the Diagram will always continually judge the book by its cover (title).”

Misc

  • Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
  • After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
  • If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
  • Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
  • “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand

No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.

A Head for Letters

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CBRichmond.jpg

On June 29, 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined a subject he knew only as a “gentlewoman”:

In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. … This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force — sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. … In analyzing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power.

The subject was Charlotte Brontë. She had attended the reading with George Smith, presenting themselves as “Mr. and Miss Fraser.” Phrenology was fashionable at the time, and Charlotte, like many others, was willing to overlook its failures to appreciate its successes. Smith’s reading said, “He is an admirer of the fair sex. He is very kind to children. … Is active and practical though not hustling or contentious.” Smith found this “not so happy,” but Charlotte said, “It is a sort of miracle — like — like — like as the very life itself.”