After a day at the races in England, a friend told Mark Twain, “I wish you’d buy me a ticket back to London. I’m broke.”
Twain told him he couldn’t afford two tickets but proposed that his friend sneak aboard the train and hide under Twain’s seat. Then he bought two tickets anyway.
When the train had got under way, the inspector appeared to collect Twain’s ticket. When Twain gave him two, he looked about the compartment and said, “Where’s the other one?”
Twain pointed under his seat, smiled, and said, “My friend is a little eccentric.”
The 17th-century churchman Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) had a gift for pithy maxims:
- Every horse thinks its own pack heaviest.
- There is more pleasure in loving than in being beloved.
- He that has a great nose, thinks everybody is speaking of it.
- It is more difficult to praise rightly than to blame.
- Eaten bread is forgotten.
- A wise man may look ridiculous in the company of fools.
- Bad excuses are worse than none.
- A book that is shut is but a block.
- Custom is the plague of wise men and the idol of fools.
- A man is not good or bad for one action.
- Unseasonable kindness gets no thanks.
- ‘Tis skill, not strength, that governs a ship.
- Abused patience turns to fury.
- All things are difficult before they are easy.
- Poor men’s reasons are not heard.
- The more wit the less courage.
- Travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.
And “Learning hath gained most by those books by which the printers have lost.” “Wit,” wrote Coleridge, “was the stuff and substance of Fuller’s intellect.”
Douglas MacArthur’s mother dressed him in skirts, blouses, and bows and kept his hair in curls until he was 8 years old. Franklin Roosevelt wore shoulder-length blond curls and short skirts, “as he liked to kick and feel free to move about.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s mother, who had lost a daughter the year before he was born, baptized her son René Maria, dressed him as a girl, and arranged his hair in curls until he was 5.
“I had to wear beautiful long dresses,” he recalled later, “and until I started school I went about like a little girl. I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll.”
Traveling on the same ship, Mark Twain and Chauncey Depew were asked to address the dinner crowd. Twain went first and spoke for 20 minutes to great applause. Then Depew rose.
“Mr. Toastmaster and ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “before this dinner, Mark Twain and I made an agreement to trade speeches. He has just delivered my speech, and I thank you for the pleasant manner in which you received it. I regret to say that I have lost the notes of his speech and cannot remember anything he has to say.” And he sat down, to much laughter.
The next day, an Englishman found Twain in the smoking room. “Mr. Clemens,” he said, “I consider you were much imposed on last night. I have always heard that Mr. Depew is a clever man — but really, that speech of his you made last night struck me as being most infernal rot.”
In the 1970s, Forrest Ackerman sold this story to Vertex for $100:
Cosmic Report Card: Earth
He resold it four times for the same amount, and it’s been translated into three languages.
The “shortest horror story ever written” is usually attributed to Frederic Brown:
The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.
Ron Smith shortened this further by changing knock to lock.
We don’t know much about Angus McDiarmid, except that he’s been called “the world’s worst author.” His 1815 book Striking and Picturesque Delineations of the Grand, Beautiful, Wonderful, and Interesting Scenery Around Loch-Earn is a bewildering mess of bad grammar and obscure language — apparently he composed it in his native Scottish Gaelic and then salted it with impressive words from an English dictionary, without much regard to their parts of speech:
The foresaid high Grampian mountains abounded with spasmodiac opening, or excavated parts, that if a loud cry made at accommodious distant, they would sounded the same in such miraculous manner, that one apt to conceive that each parts of those spasmodiac rocks imbibed the vociferation which is depressing gradually the sonorofic sound to the expiry thereof.
But the high point is the dedication, which William Shepard Walsh calls “as grovelling and abject as the worst example in the very worst periods of authorial servility”:
To the Right Honorable the Earl of Breadalbane. May it please your lordship, with overpowering sentiments of the most profound humility, I prostrate myself at your noble feet, while I offer, to your Lordship’s high consideration, those very feeble attempts to describe the indescribable and ineffable beauties of your Lordship’s delicious estate of Edinample. With tumid emotions of heart-distending pride, and with fervescent feelings of gratitude, I beg leave to acknowledge the honor I have to serve so noble a master, and the many advantages which I, in common with your Lordship’s other menials, enjoy from the exuberance of your princely liberality. That your Lordship may long shine with refulgent brilliancy in the exalted station to which Providence has raised you, and that your noble family, like a bright constellation, may diffuse a splendor and glory through the high sphere of their attraction, is the fervent prayer of your lordship’s most humble and most devoted servant, Angus McDiarmid.
The whole book is here.
“Dear Sir,–I am in a madhouse. I quite forget your name or who you are. You must excuse me, for I have nothing to communicate or tell of, and why I am shut up I don’t know. I have nothing to say, so I remain yours faithfully, JOHN CLARE.”
So wrote John Clare to an inquirer in 1860. At that point he had spent 18 years in a Northamptonshire asylum, after a promising if penurious career as a nature poet. His first volume, in 1820, had been brought out by Keats’ publisher and highly praised, but by 1835 he was descending into alcoholism and mental illness, confusing himself with Byron and Shakespeare and at one point interrupting a performance of The Merchant of Venice to berate Shylock.
Today Clare is ranked among the greatest of 19th-century poets, one whose sensitive nature had become increasingly disjoint as the industrial and agricultural revolutions swept the idyllic English countryside of his youth.
More’s the pity. When completing the paperwork to confine him to the asylum in 1841, Clare’s doctor had considered the question “Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?” He answered, “After years of poetical prosing.”
The sun went down like a bale of dull fire, in the midst of smearing clouds of red-currant jam. The wind began to whistle worse than any of the lowest orders of society in a shilling gallery. … The cords of the ship snapped like bad stay-laces. No best Genoa velvet was ever blacker than the firmament, and not even the voices of the ladies calling for the stewardess were heard above the orchestral crashing of the elements.
– Douglas Jerrold, “A Young Lady’s Description of a Storm at Sea,” 1858
An English professor was training her students in memorization techniques.
“For instance,” she said, “if you want to remember the name of a certain poet, Bobbie Burns, you could visualize a London policeman in flames.” She drew a picture in chalk. “You see? ‘Bobbie Burns.’”
A student raised his hand and asked, “How could we know that’s not ‘Robert Browning’?”
In 1969, convinced that anything prurient would sell in the era of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady decided to manufacture his own bestseller. He asked 24 colleagues to write a chapter apiece, following two rules: They had to write badly, and there had to be an “unremitting emphasis on sex”:
In the darkened room, now thirstier than ever, Gillian was suddenly aware of the presence beside her of Mario Vella. He had allowed his left elbow to brush gently against her. In any other surrounding, in any other circumstances, Gillian Blake would have gracefully withdrawn. She didn’t. She held her ground and his elbow became more persistent.
Sadly, McGrady was right. With two sex scenes per chapter, Naked Came the Stranger quickly became a national bestseller, ending the year at number 7 on the fiction charts, five slots behind The Godfather.
“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” wrote the Long Island Press. And the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times said it was “witty and written in good taste, and brings out many new angles in man-woman relationships.”
“These are the kind of people,” McGrady told Life, “who are running around setting literary standards.”
On seeing two women screaming at one another across an Edinburgh alley, Sydney Smith paused.
“Those two women will never agree,” he said. “They are arguing from different premises.”
‘Well, then, good fellow, holy father, or whatever thou art,’ quoth Robin, ‘I would know whether this same Friar is to be found upon this side of the river or the other.’
‘Truly, the river hath no side but the other,’ said the Friar.
‘How dost thou prove that?’ asked Robin.
‘Why, thus,’ said the Friar, noting the points upon his fingers. ‘The other side of the river is the other, thou grantest?’
‘Yet the other side is but one side, thou dost mark?’
‘No man could gainsay that,’ said Robin.
‘Then if the other side is one side, this side is the other side. But the other side is the other side, therefore both sides of the river are the other side. Q.E.D.’
”Tis well and pleasantly argued,’ quoth Robin, ‘yet I am still in the dark as to whether this same Curtal Friar is upon the side of the river on which we stand or upon the side of the river on which we do not stand.’
‘That,’ quoth the Friar, ‘is a practical question upon which the cunning rules appertaining to logic touch not. I do advise thee to find that out by the aid of thine own five senses; sight, feeling, and what not.’
– Howard Pyle, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, 1883
In 1989, Jules Verne’s great-grandson opened a disused family safe and found a forgotten manuscript. Composed in 1863, Paris in the Twentieth Century imagines the remote future of August 1960 — a world illuminated by electric lights in which people drive horseless carriages powered by internal combustion and ride in automatic, driverless trains.
In Verne’s vision, the citizens of Paris use copiers, calculators, and fax machines; inhabit skyscrapers equipped with elevators and television; and execute their criminals in electric chairs. Twenty-six years before the Eiffel Tower was erected, Verne described “an electric lighthouse, no longer much used, [that] rose into the sky to a height of 152 meters. This was the highest monument in the world, and its lights could be seen, forty leagues away, from the towers of Rouen Cathedral.”
Verne’s publisher had returned the manuscript because he found it too dark — in addition to the city’s technological wonders, it describes overcrowding, pollution, the dissolution of social institutions, and “machines advantageously replacing human hands.”
“No one today,” he had written, “will believe your prophecy.”
At a dinner, Oliver Herford found himself sitting next to a very serious young woman.
“Tell me, Mr. Herford,” she said. “Have you no ambition beyond making people laugh?”
“Yes, I have,” he replied. “And someday I hope to gratify it.”
“Please tell me,” she said eagerly. “What is it?”
He said, “I want to throw an egg into an electric fan.”
The index for Paul Halmos’ 1942 textbook Finite-Dimensional Vector Spaces contains this entry:
Hochschild, G. P., 198
It appears on page 198 of the index. Hochschild is mentioned nowhere else in the book.
Keith Waterhouse wrote, “Should not the Society of Indexers be known as Indexers, Society of, The?”
One day there was a traveller in the woods in California, in the dry season, when the Trades were blowing strong. He had ridden a long way, and he was tired and hungry, and dismounted from his horse to smoke a pipe. But when he felt in his pocket he found but two matches. He struck the first, and it would not light.
‘Here is a pretty state of things!’ said the traveller. ‘Dying for a smoke; only one match left; and that certain to miss fire! Was there ever a creature so unfortunate? And yet,’ thought the traveller, ‘suppose I light this match, and smoke my pipe, and shake out the dottle here in the grass – the grass might catch on fire, for it is dry like tinder; and while I snatch out the flames in front, they might evade and run behind me, and seize upon yon bush of poison oak; before I could reach it, that would have blazed up; over the bush I see a pine tree hung with moss; that too would fly in fire upon the instant to its topmost bough; and the flame of that long torch – how would the trade wind take and brandish that through the inflammable forest! I hear this dell roar in a moment with the joint voice of wind and fire, I see myself gallop for my soul, and the flying conflagration chase and outflank me through the hills; I see this pleasant forest burn for days, and the cattle roasted, and the springs dried up, and the farmer ruined, and his children cast upon the world. What a world hangs upon this moment!’
With that he struck the match, and it missed fire.
‘Thank God!’ said the traveller, and put his pipe in his pocket.
– Robert Louis Stevenson, “Fables,” Longman’s Magazine, August 1895
People go into ecstasies over the famous soliloquy ‘To be or not to be.’ I cannot myself know if our souls are annihilated after death or not. But if any one is well informed upon that point, it is Hamlet, who talks every day with his defunct father.
– Victorien Sardou, quoted in William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
Thomas Jefferson writhed under the criticisms of the Continental Congress as it reviewed his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Seeing this, Benjamin Franklin took him aside. “I have made it a rule,” he said, “whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draftsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you.
“When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprenticed hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words: John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money, with a figure of a hat subjoined. But he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments.
“The first he showed it to thought the word hatter tautologous, because followed by the words makes hats, which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word makes might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats; if good and to their mind they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words for ready money were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, John Thompson sells hats. ‘Sells hats?’ says his next friend; ‘why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What, then, is the use of that word?’ It was stricken out, and hats followed, the rather as there was one painted on the board.
“So his inscription was ultimately reduced to John Thompson, with the figure of a hat subjoined.”
A servant maid was sent by her mistress to Ben Johnson, for an epitaph on her departed husband. She could only afford to pay half-a-guinea, which Ben refused, saying he never wrote one for less than double that sum; but recollecting he was going to dine that day at a tavern, he ran down stairs and called her back. ‘What was your master’s name?’–’Jonathan Fiddle, sir.’–’When did he die?’–’June the 22nd, sir.’ Ben took a small piece of paper, and wrote with his pencil, while standing on the stairs, the following:–
On the twenty-second of June,
Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune.
– Horatio Edward Norfolk, Gleanings in Graveyards, 1861
n. careless handwriting
Of all editorial writers, Horace Greeley was most noted for illegible copy. On one occasion the ‘modern Franklin’ penned something about ‘Suburban journalism advancing,’ but the typesetter, thinking it one of his famous agricultural articles, launched out wildly with the words, ‘Superb Jerusalem artichokes.’ The stories of the wild work made by compositors with Mr. Greeley’s writing are endless, and probably most of them inventions; but the fiction cannot possibly outdo the reality. One of his editorial headings, ‘William H. Seward,’ was turned into ‘William the Third’; and the quotation from Shakespeare, ”Tis true, ’tis pity, and pity ’tis ’tis true,’ came out ”Tis two, ’tis fifty and fifty, ’tis fifty-two.’ That a sign-painter turned the placard ‘Entrance on Spruce’ to put up on the Nassau Street door during repairs, into ‘Editors on a Spree,’ is probably apocryphal; but the familiar legend that a discharged printer took his note of dismissal and used it for a letter of recommendation, securing a place on the strength of the signature, which was all anybody could read, is likely enough to have been true.
– Travelers’ Record, April 1889
See Pen Mystique.
ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL is a word-level palindrome.
So is the witches’ chant FAIR IS FOUL, AND FOUL IS FAIR in Macbeth.
More maxims of Rochefoucauld:
- “Before we passionately wish for anything, we should examine into the happiness of its possessor.”
- “Were we perfectly acquainted with any object, we should never passionately desire it.”
- “It is easier to appear worthy of the employments we are not possessed of, than of those we are.”
- “Those who endeavor to imitate us we like much better than those who endeavor to equal us. Imitation is a sign of esteem but competition of envy.”
- “We are often more agreeable through our faults than through our good qualities.”
- “We easily excuse in our friends those faults that do not affect us.”
- “None are either so happy or so unhappy as they imagine.”
- “Censorious as the world is, it oftener does favor to false merit than injustice to true.”
- “Absence destroys small passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes tapers, and kindles fires.”
- “We never desire ardently what we desire rationally.”
- “Our self-love bears with less patience the condemnation of our taste than of our opinion.”
And “Why have we memory sufficient to retain the minutest circumstances that have happened to us; and yet not enough to remember how often we have related them to the same person?”
Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes has won the 2009 Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, with 42 percent of the vote. Other contenders:
- Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter
- An Intellectual History of Cannibalism
- Father Christmas Needs a Wee!
- What Kind of Bean Is This Chihuahua?
- Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich
- Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots
- The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- I Stopped Sucking My Thumb … Why Can’t You Stop Drinking?
The winning book informs readers how to “crochet models of the hyperbolic plane, pseudosphere, and catenoid/helicoids” and explores geometry and the history of crochet. “It defended its poll-topping position despite strong support for the spoon-carrying Third Reich, once again attempting to muscle in on someone else’s territory,” said prize custodian Horace Bent. “But the public proclivity towards non-Euclidean needlework proved too great for the Third Reich to overcome. If only someone had let the Poles know in ’39.”
Maxims of Rochefoucauld:
- “Few men are able to know all the ill they do.”
- “We are never made so ridiculous by the qualities we have, as by those we affect to have.”
- “In every profession, every individual affects to appear what he would willingly be esteemed; so that we may say, the world is composed of nothing but appearances.”
- “We like better to see those on whom we confer benefits, than those from whom we receive them.”
- “Everybody takes pleasure in returning small obligations; many go so far as to acknowledge moderate ones; but there is hardly any one who does not repay great obligations with ingratitude.”
- “In misfortunes we often mistake dejection for constancy; we bear them without daring to look on them, as cowards suffer themselves to be killed without resistance.”
- “None but the contemptible are apprehensive of contempt.”
- “We want strength to act up to our reason.”
- “We easily forget crimes that are known only to ourselves.”
- “It is as easy to deceive ourselves without our perceiving it, as it is difficult to deceive others without their perceiving it.”
- “We are sometimes less unhappy in being deceived than in being undeceived by those we love.”
And “Those who apply themselves too much to little things commonly become incapable of great ones.”