Pen Time

“I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.” — Pascal

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” — Mark Twain

“If you want me to talk for ten minutes, I’ll come next week. If you want me to talk for an hour I’ll come tonight.” — Woodrow Wilson


Harold Macmillan: “What are you doing, prime minister?”

Winston Churchill: “Rehearsing my impromptu witticisms.”


When Mark Twain took his first job as a newspaper reporter, his editor told him never to report anything as fact unless he could verify it by personal knowledge.

That night Twain covered a social gala. He filed the following story: “A woman giving the name of Mrs. James Jones, who is reported to be one of the society leaders of the city, is said to have given what purported to be a party yesterday to a number of alleged ladies. The hostess claims to be the wife of a reputed attorney.”


In 1937, Max Eastman and Ernest Hemingway found themselves together in Max Perkins’ office at Scribner’s. On Perkins’ desk was Eastman’s Art and the Life of Action, which contained an essay critical of Hemingway. They began to argue. Hemingway bared his chest. Eastman bared his. Hemingway slapped him.

What happened next is unclear. “The trouble with these literary bouts,” opined the New York Times, “is that there is never an official referee on hand. Both sides can claim a decision and a foul at the same time, and usually do.”

But in 1947 the House of Books catalog offered for sale a damaged copy of Art and the Life of Action. On page 95, it said, was a spot caused by contact “with Mr. Eastman’s nose when Mr. Hemingway struck him with it in a gesture of disapproval.” The spot was witnessed by Maxwell Perkins.

Return of Post

Letter from Charles Dodgson to Nellie Bowman, Nov. 1, 1891:

C.L.D., Uncle loving your! Instead grandson his to it give to had you that so, years 80 or 70 for it forgot you that was it pity a what and: him of fond so were you wonder don’t I and, gentleman old nice very a was he. For it made you that him been have must it see you so: grandfather my was, then alive was that, ‘Dodgson Uncle’ only the. Born was I before long was that, see you, then But. ‘Dodgson Uncle for pretty thing some make I’ll now,’ it began you when, yourself to said you that, me telling her without, knew I course of and: ago years many great a it made had you said she. Me told Isa what from was it? For meant was it who out made I how know you do! Lasted has it well how and. Grandfather my for made had you macassar-Anti pretty that me give to you of nice so was it, Nellie dear my

“If you see Nobody come into the room,” he wrote to another girl, “please give him a kiss from me.”

Contradictory Proverbs

Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.

You’re never too old to learn.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

A word to the wise is sufficient.
Talk is cheap.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Actions speak louder than words.
The pen is mightier than the sword.

Many hands make light work.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Seek and ye shall find.
Curiosity killed the cat.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

The best things in life are free.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

G.K. Chesterton said, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”

Cold Shoulder

In 1944 a children’s book club sent a volume about penguins to a 10-year-old girl, enclosing a card seeking her opinion.

She wrote, “This book gives me more information about penguins than I care to have.”

American diplomat Hugh Gibson called it the finest piece of literary criticism he had ever read.


  • Canada’s coastline is six times as long as Australia’s.
  • Rudyard Kipling invented snow golf.
  • Can you see your eyes move in a mirror?
  • 26364 = 263 × 6/4
  • “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.” — Montaigne

Higher Things

On a television show, Eddie Fisher complained to George S. Kaufman that women refused to date him because he looked so young. Kaufman considered this and replied:

“Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to 24 times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed until the construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope. Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.”


Alexander Woollcott asked that his ashes be scattered at his alma mater, Hamilton College in Utica, N.Y.

Somehow they were misdirected to Colgate University, and they arrived at Hamilton with 67 cents postage due.

He once wrote, “Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.”

Author Relations

When Bennett Cerf published Gertrude Stein’s Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind in 1936, he included this “Publisher’s Note”:

This space is usually reserved for a brief description of a book’s contents. In this case, however, I must admit frankly that I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title.

I admire Miss Stein tremendously, and I like to publish her books, although most of the time I do not know what she is driving at. That, Miss Stein tells me, is because I am dumb.

I note that one of my partners and I are characters in this latest work of Miss Stein’s. Both of us wish we knew what she was saying about us. Both of us hope too that her faithful followers will make more of this book than we were able to!

Interviewing Stein on his radio program, Cerf said, “I’m very proud to be your publisher, Miss Stein, but as I’ve always told you, I don’t understand very much of what you’re saying.”

She said, “Well, I’ve always told you, Bennett, you’re a very nice boy, but you’re rather stupid.”

Free Study,_1889.jpg

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” — Samuel Johnson

“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” — Plato

“Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” — Oscar Wilde

Authors on Authors

Oscar Wilde on Charles Dickens:

“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Joseph Conrad on Herman Melville:

“He knows nothing of the sea. Fantastic — ridiculous.”

John Dryden on John Donne:

“Were he translated into numbers, and English, he would yet be wanting in the dignity of expression.”

Vladimir Nabokov on Joseph Conrad:

“I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romantic clichés.”

Henry James on Edgar Allan Poe:

“An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

H.G. Wells on George Bernard Shaw:

“An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”

Gustave Flaubert on George Sand:

“A great cow full of ink.”

Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac:

“That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

Mark Twain wrote that Jane Austen’s books “madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy. … Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”


  • Dorothy Parker named her dog Cliche.
  • 27639 = 27 × 63 – 9
  • Tikitiki cures beriberi.
  • Can an object move itself?
  • “The best way out is always through.” — Robert Frost

First Base,_from_A_Memoir_of_Jane_Austen_(1870).jpg

The earliest mention of baseball may be in Northanger Abbey, of all places:

… it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.

Jane Austen wrote that passage in 1798, 41 years before Abner Doubleday supposedly invented the game in 1839. Evidence now suggests that “America’s game” evolved in England and was imported to the New World in the 18th century.

UPDATE: A reader alerts me that the town of Pittsfield, Mass., passed an ordinance in 1791 forbidding inhabitants from playing “Baseball” and certain other games near a new meeting house. This is believed to be the first written reference to baseball in North America. But a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the OED now has an example dating from 1748: “Now, in the winter, in a large room, they divert themselves at base-ball, a play all who are, or have been, schoolboys, are well acquainted with.” The letter writer was English, so, for the moment, England has the ball.

Salad Bar

In his 1968 novel Enderby Outside, Anthony Burgess contrived to use the word onions four times in a row:

Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby, bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions. ‘Onions,’ said Hogg.

Burgess could take playfulness to excess — the first volume of the Enderby quartet got him into a bit of trouble.


For their investiture as poet laureate, Wordsworth and Tennyson both borrowed the same suit from Samuel Rogers.

Unfortunately, Rogers was a small man. When Tennyson had trouble fitting into the suit, he asked a servant how Wordsworth had fared. “They had great difficulty in getting him into them,” the man replied.


Thackeray was at a St. Louis dinner, when one waiter said to another: ‘That is the celebrated Mr. Thackeray.’ ‘What’s he done?’ said the other. ‘Blessed if I know,’ was the answer.

– James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

Between the Lines

Read the first letter of each sentence of the preface of Transport Phenomena, a 1960 chemical engineering textbook by Robert Bird, Warren Stewart, and Edwin Lightfoot, and you’ll discover the message THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO O.A. HOUGEN.

In the second edition, the initial letters of successive paragraphs spell the word WELCOME.

In the afterword, they spell ON WISCONSIN.


L. Frank Baum was 41 years old when he published his first book. In giving a copy to his sister, he included a personal inscription:

“When I was young I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame. Now that I am getting old my first book is written to amuse children. For aside from my evident inability to do anything ‘great,’ I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession; but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz appeared three years later.

Invisible Man

The book that Montgomery Carmichael published in 1902 seemed at first to be a straightforward biography:

The will of my friend Philip Walshe has put me in possession of a large and extraordinary collection of valuable MSS., and has at the same time laid upon me a task of no little delicacy and difficulty. These MSS. are the voluminous works of his father, the late Mr. John William Walshe, F.S.A., who died on the 2nd July 1900, aged sixty-three, at Assisi, in Umbria, where he had passed the latter half of his life. Mr. Walshe was well known to scholars as perhaps the greatest living authority on matters Franciscan: otherwise he had practically no fame. The busy world, at all events, knew him not.

“It takes some time to realize that this is all an elaborate piece of mystification,” wrote a Dial reviewer, “and to recall the fact that the name of Walshe does not figure in any actual list of Franciscan scholars, living or dead.”

The Life of John William Walshe is the detailed portrait of a man who never existed. Librarian Edmund Lester Pearson calls it “one of the most inexplicable examples of the literary hoax. … It contained not one atom of satire, it was not a parody, and so far as I, at least, could have discovered by internal evidence, it was what it purported to be: a sober and reverent biography of an Englishman dwelling in Italy, a devout member of the Church of Rome, and in particular an enthusiastic student and pious follower of St. Francis of Assisi.”

Carmichael was a member of the British consular service in Italy and the author of a number of European travel books. So far as I can tell, he never explained this work — he called it only “the story of a hidden life.”


  • Dorothy Parker named Alexander Woollcott’s apartment “Wit’s End.”
  • Can you look at something and imagine it at the same time?
  • 36850 = (36 + 8) × 50
  • AGNOSTIC is an anagram of COASTING.
  • “The errors of a man are what make him really lovable.” — Goethe

“The Jabberwocky of Authors”

‘Twas gilbert. The kchesterton
Did locke and bennett in the reed.
All meredith was the nicholson,
And harrison outqueed.

Beware the see-enn-william, son,
The londonjack with call that’s wild.
Beware the gertroo datherton
And richardwashburnchild.

He took his brady blade in hand;
Long time the partridge foe he sought.
Then stood a time by the oppenheim
In deep mcnaughton thought.

In warwick deeping thought he stood–
He poised on edithwharton brink;
He cried, “Ohbernardshaw! I could
If basilking would kink.”

Rexbeach! rexbeach!–and each on each
O. Henry’s mantles ferber fell.
It was the same’s if henryjames
Had wally eaton well.

“And hast thou writ the greatest book!
Come to thy birmingham, my boy!
Oh, beresford way! Oh, holman day!”
He kiplinged in his joy.

‘Twas gilbert. The kchesterton
Did locke and bennett in the reed.
All meredith was the nicholson,
And harrison outqueed.

– Harry Persons Taber, in Carolyn Wells, The Book of Humorous Verse, 1920


‘The very worst line in Latin poetry’ was, according to Professor Tyrrell, achieved by Statius when he apostrophised the condition of childlessness as ‘to be avoided by every effort’ (Orbitas omni fugienda nisu).

– “A Study in Superlatives,” in Sir Edward Tyas Cook, Literary Recreations, 1918

Memorable Indexes

From Henry Wheatley’s index to Samuel Pepys’ diary:

Periwig, Pepys wears one, iii. 116, 327; Pepys puts off the wearing of one for a while, iii. 265; one bought by Pepys, iii. 323; he buys a case for it, iii. 328; Pepys so altered by it that the Duke of York did not know him, iii. 334; Pepys has a second made of his own hair, iii. 341, 342; he sends one to the barber’s to be cleansed of its nits, iv. 190; he buys two more, vi. 245; Pepys agrees with a barber to keep his in order, viii. 33; his, set on fire, viii. 118; King and Duke of York first wear periwigs, iv. 43; danger of wearing periwigs during the Plague, v. 64; Ladies of Honour in, v. 324; periwig shops, iii. 116, 316, 326; vi. 314; viii. 127.

From James Russell Lowell’s index to The Biglow Papers:

Alligator, a decent one conjectured to be, in some sort, humane, 156
Birch, virtue of, in instilling certain of the dead languages, 134
Christian soldiers, perhaps inconsistent, whether, 64
Eating words, habit of, convenient in time of famine, 76
Epaulets, perhaps no badge of saintship, 55
Fire, we all like to play with it, 85
National pudding, its effect on the organs of speech, a curious physiological fact, 51
Paris, liberal principles safe as far away as, 96
People soft enough, 98–want correct ideas, 131
Pleiades, the, not enough esteemed, 103
Present, not long wonderful, 103
Riches conjectured to have legs as well as wings, 92
Satan, never wants attorneys, 48
Speech-making, an abuse of gift of speech, 81
Venetians, invented something once, 135

From Lewis Carroll’s index to Sylvie and Bruno:

Crocodiles, logic of, 230
Electricity, influence of, on Literature, 64
Frog, young, how to amuse, 364
Ghosts, treatment of, in Railway-Literature, 58
Loving or being loved. Which is best? 77
Parentheses in conversation, how to indicate, 251
Weltering, appropriate fluids for, 58

Carroll’s index also includes entries for “Boots for horizontal weather,” “Horizontal rain, boots for,” “Rain, horizontal, boots for,” and “Weather, horizontal, boots for”:

“But what’s the use of wearing umbrellas round one’s knees?”

“In ordinary rain,” the Professor admitted, “they would not be of much use. But if ever it rained horizontally, you know, they would be invaluable–simply invaluable!”