When PLAFSEP magazine asked its readers to nominate the silliest library subject heading, the hands-down winner was BUTTOCKS (IN RELIGION, FOLK-LORE, ETC.). Other highlights, gathered by columnist John R. Likins:
AMERICAN GIANT CHECKERED RABBIT
CATASTROPHICAL, THE, see also COMIC, THE
CHILD ABUSE–STUDY AND TEACHING
CONTANGO AND BACKWARDATION
DENTISTS IN ART
FANTASTIC TELEVISION PROGRAMS
GOD–ADDRESSES, ESSAYS, LECTURES
JESUS CHRIST–PERSON AND OFFICES
ODORS IN THE BIBLE
PRAYERS FOR ANIMALS
URINARY DIVERSIONS, see also URINE DANCE
That’s from Likins’ article “Subject Headings, Silly, American–20th Century–Complications and Sequelae–Addresses, Essays, Lectures,” in Technical Services Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1/2, Fall/Winter 1984, using data from the Library of Congress and Cataloging in Publication. In The Library at Night (2006), Alberto Manguel gives these:
Boots and shoes in art
Chickens in religion and folklore
Sewage: collected works
Sex: cause and determination
Tic: see also toc
And the Whole Library Handbook (1991) offers these, collected by the Library of Congress Professional Association:
Beehives; see Bee–Housing
Diving for men
Drug abuse — Programmed instruction
Feet in the Bible
Hand — Surgery — Juvenile literature
Lord’s Supper — Reservation
Low German wit and humor
Running races in rabbinical literature
Standing on one foot; see One-leg resting position
Stupidity; see Inefficiency, Intellectual
I think some of these may now be out of date, but there’s certainly no shortage of curious headings — in doing research for this site I recently ran across “Raccoon — Biography.”
“If scientific theories are correct it is more of an honor to lose at chess than win,” mused Edgar Rice Burroughs in his diary on Jan. 3, 1921. “I do not recall ever having lost a chess game — though I have played but few times.”
Perhaps inspired, he invented a Martian variant of the game, Jetan, for his novel The Chessmen of Mars, published the following spring. Played with alien pieces on a 10×10 board, the game underlies a climactic scene in which living players fight to the death on an oversize board.
A few months after the novel’s appearance, Burroughs received a letter from Elston B. Sweet, a convict at Leavenworth, who with a fellow prisoner had carved a full set of pieces for Jetan. “We have not only played dozens of games between us,” he wrote, “but have succeeded in making the game a favorite among several other prisoners.” When other readers expressed similar interest, Burroughs summarized the rules of the game in an appendix to the novel.
In a 1968 collection of chess variations, John Gollon praises Jetan as “quite good — very playable and entertaining.” He includes this sample game between himself (orange) and J. Miller (black):
1. (T) A2-B4 (T)A9-B7
2. (W) A1-A3 (W) A10-A8
3. (Pd) B1-B3 (Pd) B10-B8
4. (Pa) C2-D3 (Pa) C9-D8
5. (D) C1-C4 (D) C10-C7
6. (O) G1-D4 (O) G10-D7
7. (D) C4-C7X (D) (Pa)D8-C7X (D)
8. (Pa) B3-D5 (O) D7-G8
9. (Pa) D5-B7X (T) (Pa) C7-B7X (Pd)
10. (O) D4-G5 (Pa) F7-F8
11. (Pa) H2-G3 (Pa) H9-I8
12. (D) H1-H4 (D) H10-H7
13. (Pd) I1-I3 (Pa) I7-J8
14. (T) J2-I4 (C) F10-F7
15. (D) H4-H7X (D) (Pa) I8-H7X (D)
16. (Pa) E2-E3 (O) D10-G7
17. (Pd) I3-I5 (O) G7-D6
18. (O) D1-E4 (O) D6-G5X (O)
19. (T) I4-G5X (O) (C) F7-I5X (Pd)
20. (Pa) G3-G4 (C) I5-I2X (Pa)
21. (P) F1-C1 (C) I2-J1X (W)
22. (T) G5-H7X (Pa) (O) G8-H7X (T)
23. (O) E4-H7X (O) (P) E10-C9
24. (O) H7-I10X (Pd) (T) I9-I7
25. (C) E1-E4 (W) J10-I9
26. (C) E4-D7 (P) C9-F1
27. (C) D7-F4
“Black’s Princess ‘escaped’ into certain capture — no matter where she moves, she will be taken.”
In October 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife woke him out of a troubled sleep, and he cried, “O, why did you wake me? I was dreaming such a fine bogey tale.”
“One man was being pressed into a cabinet, when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being,” he told an interviewer later. “I awoke and said at once that I had found the missing link for which I had been looking so long, and before I again went to sleep, almost every detail of the story, as it stands, was clear to me.”
He wrote out the tale in three days and presented it to his wife, who said he had overlooked the allegory at the heart of the idea. He grew angry, paced his room, and reappeared. “You are right,” he said. “I have absolutely missed the allegory, which after all is the whole point of it.” He threw the manuscript into the fire and spent another three days rewriting it. In all he wrote 64,000 words in six days.
As he crossed to the United States in September 1887, he had an early intimation of the book’s fame: The ill-tempered pilot of his boat had been nicknamed Hyde, and his better-natured partner was called Jekyll.
DR. GALL: You see, so many Robots are being manufactured that people are becoming superfluous; man is really a survival. But that he should begin to die out, after a paltry thirty years of competition! That’s the awful part of it. You might think that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots. All the universities are sending in long petitions to restrict their production. Otherwise, they say, mankind will become extinct through lack of fertility. But the R.U.R. shareholders, of course, won’t hear of it. All the governments, on the other hand, are clamoring for an increase in production, to raise the standards of their armies. And all the manufacturers in the world are ordering Robots like mad.
HELENA: And has no one demanded that the manufacture should cease altogether?
DR. GALL: No one has the courage.
DR. GALL: People would stone him to death. You see, after all, it’s more convenient to get your work done by the Robots.
HELENA: Oh, Doctor, what’s going to become of people?
DR. GALL: God knows, Madame Helena, it looks to us scientists like the end!
– From Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot
Most mutilated journals in the library of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, September 1982-May 1983:
- Personnel Psychology
- Journal of Conflict Resolution
- Journal of Politics
- Education and Urban Society
- ASCE Journal of Hydraulics
- Journal of Humanistic Philosophy
- Journal of Marriage and the Family
- Journal of Experimental Psychology
(“Saving and Securing Library Materials,” American Libraries, November 1983, p. 651.)
In 1916, New York Sun columnist Don Marquis told his readers an unlikely story: He had arrived early at work to discover a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys of his typewriter.
“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Marquis wrote. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another.” The result was poetry:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life …
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay
In the years that followed, the sensitive cockroach helped Marquis fill hundreds of pages with wry and sometimes trenchant social commentary:
as i was crawling
through the holes in
a swiss cheese
day it occurred to
me to wonder
what a swiss cheese
would think if
a swiss cheese
could think and after
cogitating for some
time i said to myself
if a swiss cheese
it would think that
a swiss cheese
was the most important
thing in the world
just as everything that
can think at all
does think about itself
a good many
failures are happy
because they dont
realize it many a
himself as beautiful
as a butterfly
have a heart o have
a heart and
let them dream on
It’s not clear what inspired Marquis to create such an unlikely pair of characters, but his friend Christopher Morley offered one idea. “I remember that in the early days of the ‘Sun Dial,’ when the paper moved from Park Row to Nassau Street, Don’s typewriter desk got lost in the skirmish; so for some years he rattled out his daily stint with his machine perched on an up-ended packing case. This box had stenciled on it the statement 1 GROSS TOM CAT, which meant Tomato Catsup, but became by legend the first suggestion of mehitabel.”
In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.
Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:
Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.
Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.
William Bliss’ 1949 book The Real Shakespeare concludes with a “Shakespeare examination paper for reasonably advanced students.” It includes this question:
5. What character (and in what play) has the shortest part; appears only once (and that in a stage direction); and says nothing — and yet is essential to the plot?
I thought this might make a good puzzle — but I don’t know the answer! Bliss withholds his, and despite a lot of fumbling research I can’t find a significant player in Shakespeare who says nothing at all. Maybe the bear in The Winter’s Tale? I’ll leave it here as an open-ended riddle.
(UPDATE: In the messages I’ve received, the most popular candidate is Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth. Banquo appears alive and speaks early in the play, but Macbeth has him murdered in Act III and his ghost haunts Macbeth silently thereafter, plaguing his conscience. In the stage directions, the ghost is called “Ghost of Banquo,” so arguably this is a distinct character.)
Finally, consider what delightful teaching there is in books. How easily, how secretly, how safely in books do we make bare without shame the poverty of human ignorance! These are the masters that instruct us without rod and ferrule, without words of anger, without payment of money or clothing. Should ye approach them, they are not asleep; if ye seek to question them, they do not hide themselves; should ye err, they do not chide; and should ye show ignorance, they know not how to laugh. O Books! ye alone are free and liberal. Ye give to all that seek, and set free all that serve you zealously. By what thousands of things are ye figuratively recommended to learned men in the Scripture given us by Divine inspiration!
– Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, 1344
“People think I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” — Matthew Arnold
Letter from Charles Dickens to a chimney sweep, March 15, 1864:
Since you last swept my study chimney it has developed some peculiar eccentricities. Smoke has indeed proceeded from the cowl that surmounts it, but it has seemingly been undergoing internal agonies of a most distressing nature, and pours forth disastrous volumes of swarthy vapour into the apartment wherein I habitually labour. Although a comforting relief probably to the chimney, this is not altogether convenient to me. If you can send a confidential sub-sweep, with whom the chimney can engage in social intercourse, it might be induced to disclose the cause of the departure from its normal functions.
In scenes of pathos, Charles Dickens often wrote unconsciously in blank verse. These paragraphs from The Old Curiosity Shop, arranged as poetry, show a strong iambic rhythm:
And now the bell — the bell
She had so often heard by night and day
And listened to with solid pleasure,
E’en as a living voice –
Rung its remorseless toll for her,
So young, so beautiful, so good.
Decrepit age, and vigorous life,
And blooming youth, and helpless infancy,
Poured forth — on crutches, in the pride of strength
And health, in the full blush
Of promise — the mere dawn of life –
To gather round her tomb. Old men were there,
Whose eyes were dim
And senses failing –
Granddames, who might have died ten years ago,
And still been old — the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied,
The living dead in many shapes and forms,
To see the closing of this early grave!
What was the death it would shut in,
To that which still would crawl and creep above it!
Along the crowded path they bore her now;
Pure as the new-fallen snow
That covered it; whose day on earth
Had been so fleeting.
Under that porch where she had sat when Heaven
In mercy brought her to that peaceful spot,
She passed again, and the old church
Received her in its quiet shade.
Richard Horne presented these stanzas in New Spirit of the Age in 1844. “Throughout the whole of the above, only two unimportant words have been omitted — in and its; ‘granddames’ has been substituted for ‘grandmothers,’ and ‘e’en’ for ‘almost.’ All that remains is exactly as in the original, not a single word transposed, and the punctuation the same to a comma.”
“It is not an affectation in me, nor have I the least desire to write them in that metre,” Dickens wrote to an inquirer that April, “but I run into it, involuntarily and unconsciously, when I am very much in earnest. I even do so, in speaking.”
“I am not prepared to say that this may not be a defect in prose composition, but I attach less importance to it than I do to earnestness. And considering that it is a very melodious and agreeable march of words, usually; and may be perfectly plain and free; I cannot agree with you that it is likely to be considered by discreet readers as turgid or bombastic, unless the sentiments expressed in it, be of that character. Then indeed it matters very little how they are attired, as they cannot fail to be disagreeable in any garb.”
But he seems to have grown self-conscious about it. In 1846 he wrote to John Forster regarding The Battle of Life, “If in going over the proofs you find the tendency to blank verse (I cannot help it, when I am very much in earnest) too strong, knock out a word’s brains here and there.”
William F. Buckley Jr. called Norman Mailer an egotist, “almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unequalled in his co-existence with it.”
Mailer called Buckley a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row.”
In 1966 Buckley sent Mailer an autographed copy of The Unmaking of a Mayor, the memoir of his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City the previous year.
Mailer turned to the index and looked up his own name. There he found, in Buckley’s handwriting, the words “Hi, Norman.”
Titles of actual publications collected by librarian Eric v.d. Luft:
How to Abandon Ship (1942)
How to Abduct a Highland Lord (2007)
How to Attract the Wombat (1949)
How to Avoid Intercourse With Your Unfriendly Car Mechanic (1977)
How to Be an Ocean Scientist in Your Own Home (1988)
How to Become Extinct (1941)
How to Boil Water (1976)
How to Break Out of Prison (2003)
How to Bribe a Judge (2002)
How to Buy an Elephant (1977)
How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth (1986)
How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World (1979)
How to Embalm Your Mother-in-Law (1993)
How to Get a Gorilla Out of Your Bathtub (2006)
How to Hold a Crocodile (1981)
How to Label a Goat (2006)
How to Ride a Tiger (1983)
How to Run a Bassoon Factory (1934)
How to Tell a Blackbird From a Sausage (2007)
How to Tell If Your Boyfriend Is the Antichrist (2007)
How to Travel With a Salmon (1994)
How to Trick or Treat in Outer Space (2004)
How to Wreck a Building (1982)
The list was begun by librarians at Bowdoin College in the 1970s; Luft inherited it there and has maintained it ever since. He published a selection in 2008 as The Inscribed List: Or Why Librarians Are Crazy. “We librarians don’t go deliberately looking for these little nuggets of delight,” he writes. “We don’t have to. They just appear.”
This is the opening page of “The Metamorphosis,” from Vladimir Nabokov’s teaching copy. Kafka’s novella held a special interest for Nabokov, who was a trained entomologist. From his lecture notes at Cornell:
Now, what exactly is the ‘vermin’ into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of ‘jointed leggers’ (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. … Next question: What insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. … Further, he has strong mandibles. He uses these organs to turn the key in a lock while standing erect on his hind legs, on his third pair of legs (a strong little pair), and this gives us the length of his body, which is about three feet long. … In the original German text the old charwoman calls him Mistkafer, a ‘dung beetle.’ It is obvious that the good woman is adding the epithet only to be friendly. He is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle.
“Curiously enough,” he added, “Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.”
Unused titles from Raymond Chandler’s notebooks:
The Man with the Shredded Ear
All Guns Are Loaded
The Man Who Loved the Rain
The Corpse Came in Person
The Porter Rose at Dawn
We All Liked Al
Too Late for Smiling
They Only Murdered Him Once
The Diary of a Loud Check Suit
Stop Screaming — It’s Me
Return from Ruin
Between Two Liars
The Lady with the Truck
They Still Come Honest
My Best to the Bride
Law Is Where You Buy It
Deceased When Last Seen
The Black-Eyed Blonde
Chandler delighted in titles. In a 1954 letter to Hamish Hamilton, he invented a “neglected author” named Aaron Klopstein who “committed suicide at the age of 33 in Greenwich Village by shooting himself with an Amazonian blow gun, having published two novels entitled Once More the Cicatrice and The Sea Gull Has No Friends, two volumes of poetry, The Hydraulic Face Lift and Cat Hairs in the Custard, one book of short stories called Twenty Inches of Monkey, and a book of critical essays entitled Shakespeare in Baby Talk.”
When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he was midway through composing a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The book was published without a conclusion; Dickens had completed 22 chapters and a general outline, but he nowhere identified the murderer.
This unfortunate state of affairs persisted until 1873, when a Vermont printer named Thomas James announced that Dickens had contacted him during a Brattleboro séance and asked his help in completing the novel. James and the ghost collaborated for weeks, with James slipping into a nightly trance and scribbling down the author’s dictation; when James flagged, Dickens would send notes of encouragement and explain that others in the afterworld were following the project with interest.
The completed novel, attributed to “the Spirit-Pen of Charles Dickens, through a Medium,” became a bestseller in America but was largely derided in England for its American tone and inept prose. An excerpt:
As for Stollop, it is safe to assert that there was not a happier man in London than he, and it would occupy no small space to relate the thoughts which filled his mind till the first rays of the morning sun peeped through the crevices of the shutters, throwing light on everything, except the mind of Stollop, as to how the night’s adventure would affect his perspective future, and how long it would be ere he should lead the beautiful young lady to the altar.
The book found an unlikely supporter in Arthur Conan Doyle, who had turned to spiritualism after a series of tragedies in his own life. “If it was a true communication,” he wrote, “it must have been intensely galling to the author that his efforts should have been met with derision. There would, however, be a certain poetic justice in the matter, as Dickens in his lifetime, even while admitting psychic happenings for which he could give no explanation, went out of his way to ridicule spiritualism, which he had never studied or understood.”
Excerpt from Beer in the Sergeant Major’s Hat, a parody found in Raymond Chandler’s notebook:
Hank went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
‘The hell with it,’ he said. ‘She shouldn’t have done it.’
It was a good bathroom. It was small and the green enamel was peeling off the walls. But the hell with that, as Napoleon said when they told him Josephine waited without. The bathroom had a wide window through which Hank looked at the pine and larches. They dripped with a faint rain. They looked smooth and comfortable.
‘The hell with it,’ Hank said. ‘She shouldn’t have done it.’
He opened the cabinet over the washbasin and took out his toothpaste. He looked at his teeth in the mirror. They were large yellow teeth, but sound. Hank could still bite his way for a while.
Hank unscrewed the top of the toothpaste tube, thinking of the day when he had unscrewed the lid of the coffee jar, down on the Pukayak River, when he was trout fishing. There had been larches there too. It was a damn good river, and the trout had been damn good trout. They liked being hooked. Everything had been good except the coffee, which had been lousy. He had made it Watson’s way, boiling it for two hours and a half in his knapsack. It had tasted like hell. It had tasted like the socks of the Forgotten Man.
‘She shouldn’t have done it,’ Hank said out loud. Then he was silent.
He had written it on Aug. 7, 1932, and dedicated it to “the greatest living American novelist — Ernest Hemingway.”
In 1866 Mark Twain embarked on a lecture tour in California. He wrote the handbills himself:
In Nevada City, he proposed to perform the following “wonderful feats of sleight of hand” after the lecture:
At a given signal, he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat — repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no more deception about it.
At a moment’s warning, he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous feat many hundreds of times, in San Francisco, and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
“The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present,” he wrote, “for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.”
Notable cross-references in the index of Donald Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume VI, 1939:
Agnostic, see Dachsund.
Appendicitis, see Cadenza.
Critics, see Experts.
Experts, see Critics.
Giraffe, see Berlioz.
Hedgehog, see Brahms.
Monster, see Loch Ness.
Noodles, see Brahms on plagiarism.
Pope, see Bruckner.
Sneeze, see Cherubini and Beethoven.
Sugar, see Grocer.
Witchery, see Mendelssohn.
Evelyn Waugh owned a translation of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection for which someone had composed “a particularly felicitous index. The first entry is: ‘Adultery, 13, 53, 68, 70′; the last is ‘Why do people punish? 358′. Between them occurs such items as: Cannibalism, Dogs, Good breeding, Justification of one’s position, Seduction, Smoking, Spies, and Vegetarianism.”
In 1969, Sufi scholar Idries Shah published a volume called The Book of the Book. Its opening pages told of a king whose people would not listen to his teachings, as he lacked an instrument with which to teach them.
The king meets a stranger who tells him of a revered wise man who attributed his knowledge to a tome kept in a place of honor in his room. When the wise man died, his followers eagerly opened the book and found writing on only one page. “When you realise the difference between the container and the content,” it said, “you will have knowledge.”
The rest of Shah’s 200-page book was blank.
In 1859, Harvard treasurer Henry G. Denny sent out an appeal for funds to buy books for the college library. Among the replies he found this:
Enclosed please find five dollars, for the object above described. I would gladly give more, but this exceeds my income from all sources together for the last four months.
Henry D. Thoreau
Between 1932 and 2002, messages addressed to 221B Baker Street in London were delivered to the Abbey National Building Society, whose headquarters occupied that address. The society received hundreds of letters each year from around the globe and employed a secretary to answer them. Many concerned rather ordinary mysteries (Can Mr. Holmes suggest how a girl might find out if a boy likes her? Mr. Holmes thinks you will have to ask the boy outright), but in 1985 this telegram arrived:
GLAD TO HAVE CASE – YOUR ASSUMPTIONS WERE RIGHT – JEWELS GONE – STATUE GONE – FORMULA STOLEN – POLICE INCAPABLE – PROF. DR HANS MEIER KIDNAPPED – ME TOO! – WHAT SHALL I DO? – IMPATIENTLY AWAITING FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
It had been sent from Raunheim, West Germany. No further messages followed.
Eunoia, by the Canadian poet Christian Bök, uses only one vowel per chapter:
Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh — a hand-stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Max and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
Mark Dunn’s 2001 epistolary novel Ella Minnow Pea is set on an island that successively bans letters of the alphabet. Its discourse begins with “Thank you for the lovely postcards” and dwindles to “No, mon, no! Nooooooooo!”
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel The Gift ends with the main character, a writer, resolving to write a book about his experiences in the novel, thus promoting himself from a character to the author.
In Norman Mailer’s short story “The Notebook,” a writer’s girlfriend accuses him of being only an observer, not a participant in life. This gives him an idea, which he scribbles into his notebook: Writer accused of being observer, not participant in life by girl. Gets idea he must put in notebook. Does so, and brings the quarrel to a head. Girl breaks relationship over this. The girl breaks up with him over this.
The first story in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is a strip of paper: One side bears the words ONCE UPON A TIME THERE, the other WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN. The reader is instructed to cut this out and fashion it into a Möbius strip that reads “Once upon a time there was a story that began ‘Once upon a time there was a story that began “Once upon a time there was a story that began …”‘”
“It’s short on character, it’s short on plot, but above all, it’s short,” Barth told an interviewer. “And it does remind us of the infinite imbeddedness of the narrative impulse in human consciousness.”
In Jean-Louis Bailly’s 1990 novel La Dispersion des cendres, an embittered mystery writer publishes a sensational novel whose cover bears the warning IF YOU BUY THIS BOOK, YOU ARE A MURDERER. IF YOU READ IT, YOU WILL KNOW WHY. When the royalties reach a certain sum, they automatically send into action an assassin who shoots the writer.
Who done it? You did! “As cause and instrument of the murder, fully aware of perpetrating it, the reader — or at least the buyer — is in every sense the guilty party.”
(Thanks, Ole and Harold.)