At 503 words, this is the shortest Sherlock Holmes story that Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote. It was inscribed in a book 1.5″ high and contributed to the library of a dollhouse built for Queen Mary, the wife of George V:
How Watson Learned the Trick
Watson had been watching his companion intently ever since he had sat down to the breakfast table. Holmes happened to look up and catch his eye.
‘Well, Watson, what are you thinking about?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Holmes. I was thinking how superficial are these tricks of yours, and how wonderful it is that the public should continue to show interest in them.’
‘I quite agree,’ said Holmes. ‘In fact, I have a recollection that I have myself made a similar remark.’
‘Your methods,’ said Watson severely, ‘are really easily acquired.’
‘No doubt,’ Holmes answered with a smile. ‘Perhaps you will yourself give an example of this method of reasoning.’
‘With pleasure,’ said Watson. ‘I am able to say that you were greatly preoccupied when you got up this morning.’
‘Excellent!’ said Holmes. ‘How could you possibly know that?’
‘Because you are usually a very tidy man and yet you have forgotten to shave.’
‘Dear me! How very clever!’ said Holmes. ‘I had no idea, Watson, that you were so apt a pupil. Has your eagle eye detected anything more?’
‘Yes, Holmes. You have a client named Barlow, and you have not been successful with his case.’
‘Dear me, how could you know that?’
‘I saw the name outside his envelope. When you opened it you gave a groan and thrust it into your pocket with a frown on your face.’
‘Admirable! You are indeed observant. Any other points?’
‘I fear, Holmes, that you have taken to financial speculation.’
‘How could you tell that, Watson?’
‘You opened the paper, turned to the financial page, and gave a loud exclamation of interest.’
‘Well, that is very clever of you, Watson. Any more?’
‘Yes, Holmes, you have put on your black coat, instead of your dressing gown, which proves that your are expecting some important visitor at once.’
‘I have no doubt that I could find other points, Holmes, but I only give you these few, in order to show you that there are other people in the world who can be as clever as you.’
‘And some not so clever,’ said Holmes. ‘I admit that they are few, but I am afraid, my dear Watson, that I must count you among them.’
‘What do you mean, Holmes?’
‘Well, my dear fellow, I fear your deductions have not been so happy as I should have wished.’
‘You mean that I was mistaken.’
‘Just a little that way, I fear. Let us take the points in their order: I did not shave because I have sent my razor to be sharpened. I put on my coat because I have, worse luck, an early meeting with my dentist. His name is Barlow, and the letter was to confirm the appointment. The cricket page is beside the financial one, and I turned to it to find if Surrey was holding its own against Kent. But go on, Watson, go on! It ‘s a very superficial trick, and no doubt you will soon acquire it.’
J.M. Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and Somerset Maugham also contributed volumes for the dollhouse, which is still on display at Windsor Castle. George Bernard Shaw declined to participate.
In 1930 Dashiell Hammett reviewed mystery fiction for the New York Evening Post. Dismayed at the blunders he encountered, he published 24 “suggestions that might be of value to somebody.” Excerpts:
- The Colt’s .45 automatic pistol has no chambers. The cartridges are put in a magazine.
- When a bullet from a Colt’s .45, or any firearm of approximately the same size and power, hits you, even if not in a fatal spot, it usually knocks you over. It is quite upsetting at any reasonable range.
- When you are knocked unconscious you do not feel the blow that does it.
- Fingerprints of any value to the police are seldom found on anybody’s skin.
- Not nearly so much can be seen by moonlight as you imagine. This is especially true of colors.
- Ventriloquists do not actually “throw” their voices and such doubtful illusions as they manage depend on their gestures. Nothing at all could be done by a ventriloquist standing behind his audience.
- Even detectives who drop their final g’s should not be made to sayin “anythin’” — an oddity that calls for vocal acrobatics.
- “Youse” is the plural of “you.”
- A lawyer cannot impeach his own witness.
Also: “A trained detective shadowing a subject does not ordinarily leap from doorway to doorway and does not hide behind trees and poles. He knows no harm is done if the subject sees him now and then.”
“‘There really are fictional heroes’ sounds true, but ‘Fictional heroes really exist’ sounds false.”
– James Cargile, Paradoxes, 1979
[Walter Scott] was scrupulously careful … to answer all letters addressed to him. In those days of high postage this was a tax not only on his time and his temper, but on his purse as well. He spent as much as one hundred and fifty pounds a year in postage. Once a mighty package came from the United States. Five pounds were due on it. When opened it was found to contain a manuscript called ‘The Cherokee Lovers,’ a drama written by a New York lady, who begged Scott to read and correct it, write a prologue and an epilogue, and secure a manager and a publisher. A fortnight later another package of similar size, charged with a similar postage, was placed in Scott’s hands. When opened, out popped another copy of ‘The Cherokee Lovers,’ with a note from the authoress explaining that, as the mails were uncertain, she had deemed it prudent to forward a duplicate.
– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
GONERIL/REGAN: Pop’s tops!
LEAR: True Cordelia?
CORDELIA: Oh, Dad!
LEAR: I banish you!
Believe me, these sisters
LEAR: The twisters!
GLOUCESTER: And my boy’s a bastard.
EDMUND: Too bad.
EDGAR: I’m disguised. Tom’s a fruitcake.
LEAR: Me too!
GONERIL/REGAN: Prise those eyes out.
GLOUCESTER: I’m blinded! Boo-hoo!
EDMUND: I fix my own odds.
GLOUCESTER: The gods are such sods.
EDGAR: No they’re not. Jump! All right!
GLOUCESTER: And that’s true.
REGAN: My hubby’s just snuffed it. To bed!
EDMUND: My lady?
GONERIL: He’s mine!
ALBANY: You’re still wed.
LEAR: The law is an ass;
Forgive me, my lass.
CORDELIA: Of course!
ALBANY: They’re all dead!
Good old gods! Three cheers!
KENT: I feel queer!
LEAR: She’s dead. Howl. Fool. Gurgle.
ALBANY: Oh dear!
KENT: He’s dead and I’m dying.
EDGAR: It’s time to start crying;
I’m king. That’s your lot. Shed a tear.
– Bill Greenwell
“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water.” — Mark Twain
- Tarzan’s yell is an aural palindrome.
- CONTAMINATED is an anagram of NO ADMITTANCE.
- The Swiss Family Robinson have no surname (“Robinson” refers to Robinson Crusoe).
- x2 – 2999x + 2248541 produces 80 primes from x = 1460 to 1539.
- “A great fortune is a great slavery.” — Seneca
For years a secret shame destroyed my peace–
I’d not read Eliot, Auden or MacNeice.
But then I had a thought that brought me hope–
Neither had Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope.
– Justin Richardson, Punch, 1952
Story magazine nearly foundered for a lack of Ws. The publishers, Whit Burnett and Martha Foley, lived on Majorca, and their Spanish printer’s character set could not accommodate their English prose.
They bought some supplementary Ws from a Madrid foundry, but the new type was distractingly sharp on the page. So the printer advised them to “make those new letters old.”
“We sandpapered those Ws,” wrote Foley, “we stamped on them, we hammered them and hurled them around to give them in an hour all the wear and tear the printer’s other type had endured for many years. We finally subdued them so that they lost most of their prominence. But I have been W-conscious ever since.”
In the early 1980s Doris Lessing published two novels under a pseudonym. “I wanted to highlight that whole dreadful process in book publishing that ‘nothing succeeds like success,’” she told the New York Times. “If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, ‘Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.’”
It appears her concerns were justified. Diary of a Good Neighbor was rejected by Lessing’s regular U.K. publisher as “not commercially viable”; another house said it was “too depressing to publish.” When it did appear and no one recognized her work, she wrote a second novel, If the Old Could, under the same pseudonym. Each book received promotion typical for a novel by an unknown author, garnered few reviews, and sold only a few thousand copies.
“Some of the so-called experts on my work, people who I know looked at the novels by Jane Somers, didn’t recognize it was me,” Lessing said. “And many of the readers’ reports to the publishers were very patronizing and very nasty. … What happens mostly is that an immense amount of space will be given to not very good books by established writers.”
After leaving a Cambridge party, H.G. Wells realized he had picked up the wrong hat. The owner’s name was inside the brim, but the hat fit well, and Wells liked it. So he sent a note instead:
“I stole your hat; I like your hat; I shall keep your hat. Whenever I look inside it I shall think of you and your excellent sherry and of the town of Cambridge. I take off your hat to you.”
Letter from Mark Twain to William Dean Howells, London, July 3, 1899:
Dear Howells,— … I’ve a lot of things to write you, but it’s no use — I can’t get time for anything these days. I must break off and write a postscript to Canon Wilberforce before I go to bed. This afternoon he left a luncheon-party half an hour ahead of the rest, and carried off my hat (which has Mark Twain in a big hand written in it). When the rest of us came out there was but one hat that would go on my head — it fitted exactly, too. So wore it away. It had no name in it, but the Canon was the only man who was absent. I wrote him a note at 8 p.m.; saying that for four hours I had not been able to take anything that did not belong to me, nor stretch a fact beyond the frontiers of truth, and my family were getting alarmed. Could he explain my trouble? And now at 8.30 p.m. comes a note from him to say that all the afternoon he has been exhibiting a wonder-compelling mental vivacity and grace of expression, etc., etc., and have I missed a hat? Our letters have crossed.
In 1889 Fredericka Beardsley Gilchrist advanced a theory that the entire meaning of Hamlet has been confused because of a typographical error. In Act I, Scene V, the ghost reveals to Hamlet his mother’s adultery and his father’s murder. Hamlet responds:
O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie!
Gilchrist maintains that the second line should read:
And shall I couple? Hell! O fie!
In other words, “And after this shall I also marry? No!” He gives up his love for Ophelia, and the rest of the play is the story of “an unhappy lover.”
For Gilchrist this is “the one key that unlocks every difficulty in the play”: “For nearly three hundred years it has been possible to misunderstand, not special passages only, but the fundamental intention of the play; during that time no satisfactory explanation of all its obscurities has been advanced. I believe this theory explains them; and this belief, based on careful study and comparison, ought to excuse the seeming vanity and presumption of the preceding statement.”
Decide for yourself — her book is here.
Paul Dirac, the British theoretical physicist, has a reputation for being reserved and speaking little. He read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and commented favorably on it. Someone in Cambridge thought the two great men ought to meet. J.G. Crowther recalls that this was arranged. The two men observed each other in long, silent respect. Presently Dirac asked, ‘What happened in the cave?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Forster, which concluded their conversation.
– Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1971
(Elsewhere Dirac gave his opinion of Crime and Punishment — “He describes a sunset, and then a little later the same evening the sun sets again. That kind of mistake does jar on me.”)
John Warburton (1682–1759) collected drama manuscripts during a fruitful period in English literature. Unfortunately, he’s remembered chiefly for his carelessness — he left a pile of 50 manuscripts in his kitchen and returned months later to find that his cook had destroyed nearly all of them in lighting fires and lining pie pans.
Among the losses were plays by Massinger, Ford, Dekker, Greene, Davenant, Tourneur, Rowley, Chapman, Glapthorne, and Middleton — and three by William Shakespeare.
Comparative popularity of British novelists at the end of the 19th century, from Strand, August 1906. The giant is Dickens, followed by Thackeray and the now largely forgotten Hall Caine. Lesser mortals, left to right, are Thomas Hardy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Marie Corelli, Rudyard Kipling, Mary Augusta Ward, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Stanley Weyman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Henry James, Charlotte Brontë, George Meredith, Anthony Trollope, Charles Kingsley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Israel Zangwill, Charles Reade, and E.F. Benson.
“It should be pointed out that this diagram does not pretend to apportion the degree of contemporary literary reputations. It only shows what kind of fiction has been most read by the masses during the past twenty years.”
In 1922, T.E. Lawrence joined the Royal Air Force under the alias John Hume Ross, AC2 No. 352087. Exposed by the Daily Express, he joined the Tank Corps as Private Thomas Edward Shaw, No. 7875698. Eventually he returned to the RAF as Aircraftsman T.E. Shaw, No. 338171. His account of life in the air force was published under the byline “352087 A/C Ross.”
Noël Coward once began a letter to him, “Dear 338171 (May I call you 338?)”
“If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman; but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation.” — Samuel Johnson
“I suppose that even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building, would pall a little as the days ran on.” — James Thurber
Isaac Asimov, a claustrophile, used to envy the keepers of New York subway newsstands, “for I imagined they could board it up whenever they wanted to, put the light on, lie on a cot at the bottom, and read magazines. I used to fantasize doing so, with the warm rumble of the subway trains intermittently passing.”
- ALONE and UPRAISE can be beheaded twice and retain their essential meanings.
- Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was named Evelyn.
- 1033 = 81 + 80 + 83 + 83
- Can a shadow rotate?
- “Genius is nothing but a greater aptitude for patience.” — Benjamin Franklin
“I suppose every old scholar has had the experience of reading something in a book which was significant to him, but which he could never find again. Sure he is that he read it there, but no one else ever read it, nor can he find it again, though he buy the book, and ransack every page.” — Emerson
“When we read, we are, we must be, repeating the words to ourselves unconsciously; for how else should we discover, as we have all discovered in our time, that we have been mispronouncing a word which, in fact, we have never spoken? I refer to such words as ‘misled,’ which I, and millions of others when young, supposed to be ‘mizzled.’” — A.A. Milne
“It is one of the oddest things in the world that you can read a page or more and think of something utterly different.” — Christian Morgenstern
In Longfellow’s novel Kavanagh, Mr. Churchill reads a word problem to his wife:
“In a lake the bud of a water-lily was observed, one span above the water, and when moved by the gentle breeze, it sunk in the water at two cubits’ distance. Required the depth of the water.”
“That is charming, but must be very difficult,” she says. “I could not answer it.”
Is it? If a span is 9 inches and a cubit is 18 inches, how deep is the water?
In spite of twenty-five years in Southern California, [Aldous Huxley] remains an English gentleman. The scientist’s habit of examining everything from every side and of turning everything upside down and inside out is also characteristic of Aldous. I remember him leafing through a copy of Transition, reading a poem in it, looking again at the title of the magazine, reflecting for a moment, then saying, ‘Backwards it spells NO IT ISN(T) ART.’
– Igor Stravinsky, Dialogues, 1982
This is James Norman Hall. He co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, operated a machine gun for the Royal Fusiliers, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and spent months as a German POW.
And he wrote the poetry of a 9-year-old girl.
Literally. In 1938 a girl came to Hall in a troubled dream and began dictating poems to him about life in his childhood home of Colfax, Iowa. “She told me things about people in our hometown that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had.”
He typed them up and published them under the title Oh, Millersville!, claiming they were the rediscovered work of a turn-of-the-century Iowa farmgirl named Fern Gravel:
Oh, it is wonderful in Millersville
On many a winter night,
When the ground is covered with snow
And the moon is shining so bright.
You can hear the sleigh-bells jingling
I don’t think there could be
A more beautiful sound.
Keats it ain’t, but its homely charm brought writeups in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hall let six years elapse before he published a confession in the Atlantic Monthly, explaining that he’d been ruminating on the evils of industrialization when the girl’s voice had entered his thoughts. The voice, it seemed, remained: Hall wrote a dozen more books and moved to Tahiti, but in his autobiography he wrote that “Iowa, for all the years I have been away from it, has always been, and still is, home for me.”
When Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930, he began to receive fan mail. One young woman proposed becoming his secretary. “I’ll do everything for you,” she wrote. “And when I say everything, I mean everything.”
Lewis’ wife, Dorothy, saw the letter and responded. “My dear Miss,” she wrote. “My husband already has a stenographer who handles his work for him. And, as for ‘everything,’ I take care of that myself — and when I say everything, I mean everything.”
But Miss Cooper, the daughter of the novelist, tells a story which is well-nigh incredible. When in Paris, she saw a French translation of ‘The Spy,’ in which a man is represented as tying his horse to a locust. Not understanding that the locust-tree was meant, the intelligent Frenchman translated the word as ‘sauterelle,’ and, feeling that some explanation was due, he gravely explained in a note that grasshoppers grew to an enormous size in America, and that one of them, dead and stuffed, was placed at the door of the mansion for the convenience of visitors on horseback.
– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892