• 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!”

A Good Man

Should other species be regarded as human? In 1779 Lord Monboddo proposed that orangutans should: They walk upright, use weapons, form societies, build shelters, and behave with “dignity and composure.” “If … such an Animal be not a Man, I should desire to know in what the essence of a Man consists, and what it is that distinguishes a Natural Man from the Man of Art?”

Thomas Love Peacock mocked this view in his 1817 novel Melincourt, in which a civilized orangutan (“Sir Oran Hout-ton”) is elected to Parliament. And an anonymous wag objected even to the satire:

The author of a novel lately written,
Entitled “Melincourt,”
(‘Tis very sweet and short),
Seems indeed by some wondrous madness bitten,
Thinking it good
To take his hero from the wood:
And though I own there’s nothing treasonable
In making ouran-outangs reasonable,
I really do not think he should
Go quite the length that he has done,
Whether for satire or for fun,
To make this creature an M.P.
As if mankind no wiser were than he.
However, those who’ve read it
Must give the author credit
For skill and ingenuity,
Although it have this monstrous incongruity.

But today Monboddo’s view is on the ascendancy. Harvard legal scholar Steven M. Wise argues that orangutans — as well as chimpanzees, bonobos, elephants, parrots, dolphins, and gorillas — deserve legal personhood. “Ancient philosophers claimed that all nonhuman animals had been designed and placed on this earth just for human beings,” he writes. “Ancient jurists declared that law had been created just for human beings. Although philosophy and science have long since recanted, the law has not.”

Sleep Tight!

“For Children Three Years Old,” from Lessons for Children by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Philadelphia, 1818:

There was a naughty boy; I do not know what his name was, but it was not Charles, nor George, nor Arthur, for those are all very pretty names: but there was a robin came in at his window one very cold morning — shiver — shiver; and its poor little heart was almost frozen to death. And he would not give it the least crumb of bread in the world, but pulled it about by the tail and hurt it sadly, and it died. Now a little while after, the naughty boy’s papa and mamma went away and left him, and then he could get no victuals at all, for you know he could not take care of himself. So he went about to every body — Pray give me something to eat, — I am very hungry. And every body said, No, we shall give you none, for we do not love cruel, naughty boys. So he went about from one place to another, till at last he got into a thick wood of trees; for he did not know how to find his way any where; and then it grew dark, quite dark night. So he sat down and cried sadly; and I believe the bears came and eat him up in the wood, for I never heard any thing about him afterwards.


In 1950, Stanford graduate student Robert E. Young realized that two chapters of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors had been reversed in every American edition since 1903.

“Various discrepancies in facts and time are apparent on careful reading of the chapters in their present order,” he wrote. “On the other hand, the reversal of the two results in the complete elimination of these discrepancies.”

It turned out that the two chapters appeared in the opposite order in the English editions, and many American publishers adopted that order accordingly.

But James himself had not noted any error in revising the American text in 1909, and it’s possible to view that version as correct and the English text as reversed, if one allows for some chronological inconsistency.

The result is that there is no definitive text. “The mishap is particularly ironic,” Young wrote, “in view of the fact that James regarded The Ambassadors as his most perfectly constructed novel, his masterpiece.”


Many of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s stories were suggested by the illustrated tiles that decorated the fireplace in his study at Christ Church, Oxford:

  • At top is the ship that the Bellman steered, though “the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”
  • At top left is the Lory, who joined in the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland.
  • Below the Lory is the Dodo, who claimed a thimble as his prize.
  • At bottom left is the Fawn that couldn’t remember its name in Through the Looking-Glass.
  • At top right is the Eaglet, another Caucus-Race participant.
  • Below the Eaglet is the Gryphon, also from Wonderland.
  • At bottom right is the Beaver from “The Hunting of the Snark,” the only creature that the Butcher knew how to kill.

One of Carroll’s child-friends, Enid Stevens, supplied these particulars for The Lewis Carroll Picture Book, published in 1899. “As I sat on Mr. Dodgson’s knee before the fire,” she wrote, “he used to make the creatures have long and very amusing conversations between themselves. The little creatures on the intervening tiles used to ‘squirm’ in at intervals. I think they suggested the ‘Little birds are feeding,’ &c., in ‘Sylvie and Bruno.’”

The Book Factory

The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and Tom Swift were all the product of one man, Edward Stratemeyer, a New Jersey author who wrote more than 1,300 books and eventually founded a syndicate of ghostwriters who pounded out juvenile mysteries based on his instructions.

Stratemeyer conceived the syndicate when his Rover Boys series proved so popular that he could not keep up with the demand for more books. He corralled a stable of hungry young writers, and in 1910 they were producing 10 new series annually. Each writer earned $50 to $250 for a manuscript he could produce in a month, working with characters and plot devised by Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer would review each completed manuscript for consistency and publish it under a pseudonym that he owned — Franklin W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene, Laura Lee Hope, Victor Appleton. Each book in a series mentioned the thrilling earlier volumes and foreshadowed the next book. The formula worked so well that when Stratemeyer died in 1930 his daughter continued the business; when she died in 1982 the syndicate was selling more than 2 million books a year.

This sounds cynical, but it worked because Stratemeyer had a sympathetic understanding of what young readers wanted. “The trouble is that very few adults get next to the heart of a boy when choosing something for him to read,” Stratemeyer wrote to a publisher in 1901. “A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby, or with that which he puts down as a ‘study book’ in disguise. He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something.”

De Profundis

Woman: What terrible weather we’re having.

Oscar Wilde: Yes, but if it wasn’t for the snow, how could we believe in the immortality of the soul?

Woman: What an interesting question, Mr. Wilde! But tell me exactly what you mean.

Oscar Wilde: I haven’t the slightest idea.

(Quoted in Hesketh Pearson, Oscar Wilde, His Life and Wit, 1946)

Lv Lttr

Confined to an asylum in 1849, poet John Clare made this curious entry in a notebook:

M Drst Mr Cllngwd

M nrl wrn t & wnt t hr frm Nbd wll wn M r hv m t n prc & wht hv dn D knw wht r n m Dbt — kss’s fr tn yrs & lngr stll & Ingr thn tht whn ppl mk sch mstks s t cll m Gds bstrd & whrs p m b shttng m p frm Gds ppl t f th w f cmmn snse & thn tk m hd ff bcs th cnt fnd m t t hrds hrd

Drst Mr r fthfll r d thnk f m knw wht w sd tgthr — dd vst m n hll sm tm bck bt dnt cm hr gn fr t s ntrs bd plc wrs nd wrs nd w r ll Frnchmn flsh ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld nd s dnt believe n th thr nrt t mk mslf hvn wth m drst Mr nd sbscrb mslf rs fr vr & vr

Jhn Clr

Decoding it is simple enough — Clare had removed all vowels and the letter Y. Evidently it was the draft of a letter:

My Dearest Mary Collingwood

I am nearly worn out and want to hear from you — Nobody will own me or have me at any price and what have I done — Do you know what you are in my Debt — kisses for ten years and longer still and longer than that — when people make such mistakes as to call me God’s bastard and whores pay me by shutting me up from God’s people out of the way of common sense and then take my head off because they can’t find me — it out-Herods Herod.

Dearest Mary are you faithful or do you think of me — you know what we said together — you did visit me in hell sometime back but don’t come here again for it is a notorious bad place worse and worse and we are all turned Frenchmen — foolish people tell me I have got no home in this world and as I don’t believe in the other [? undertake] to make myself heaven with my dearest Mary and subscribe myself yours for ever and ever

John Clare

I almost offered this as a puzzle, but it’s too sad. “This is among the most disturbing letters that Clare ever wrote,” notes biographer Jonathan Bate. “It takes us inside his head during a phase of derangement. Even once one has broken the code, it is impossible to decipher the sub-text, especially as we know nothing about the identity of Mary Collingwood beyond the fact that in another of his lists Clare identified her as a Northampton girl.”


  • No bishop appears in Through the Looking-Glass.
  • Can a law compel us to obey the law?
  • 98415 = 98-4 × 15
  • Why does the ghost haunt Hamlet rather than Claudius?
  • “Put me down as an anti-climb Max.” — Max Beerbohm, declining to hike to the top of a Swiss Alp

Easy Money

In 1728 the city of Paris defaulted on a large number of municipal bonds. As a way to offer some restitution, the city decided to sponsor a series of lotteries among the disappointed bondholders. There would be only a few winners, but each investor could at least hope to recoup some of his lost money.

That’s very noble, but the city fathers had overlooked two things. First, because the government had sweetened the pot, the value of the lottery prize vastly exceeded the combined cost of the tickets. And second, among the bondholders were Voltaire and Charles Marie de La Condamine, who realized this.

The two organized a syndicate to buy up all of their fellow bondholders’ tickets, essentially guaranteeing themselves a huge profit each month. They did this systematically for half a year before the government caught on; when confronted, they pointed out that they were doing nothing illegal. In all, the syndicate realized 6 to 7 million francs, of which Voltaire kept half a million — enough to leave him independently wealthy for the rest of his life.

An Early Wonder

Image: Peter Tarn

Lewis Carroll’s father was rector at St. Peter’s Church in Croft-on-Tees. On a tour of the church in 1992, Joel Birenbaum noticed a stone carving of a cat’s head on the chancel’s east wall, a few feet above the floor. When he dropped to his knees and looked at it from a child’s perspective, the cat’s mouth assumed a broad grin.

His discovery appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on July 13, 1992.

Pen Slips

  • In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats writes of Cortez discovering the Pacific Ocean. Balboa did.
  • In Ivanhoe, Malvoisin’s first name changes from Philip to Richard.
  • In War and Peace, Vera is 17 in 1805 and 24 in 1809.
  • In Eugene O’Neill’s Where the Cross Is Made, the stage directions call for a one-armed man to sit at a table “resting his elbows, his chin in his hands.”
  • In the Aeneid, Chorinaeus and Numa die and then reappear with no explanation.

In Little Dorrit, Chapter 33, Tattycoram appears with “an iron box some two feet square” in her arms. Writes Ebenezer Brewer in his Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, “She must have been a pretty strong girl, with very long arms.”

The Author’s Eye

Excerpts from Somerset Maugham’s notebook:

  • “No action is in itself good or bad, but only such according to convention.”
  • “People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.”
  • “An action is not virtuous merely because it is unpleasant to do.”
  • “The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering.”
  • “However harmless a thing is, if the law forbids it most people will think it wrong.”
  • “I don’t know why it is that the religious never ascribe common sense to God.”
  • “All this effort of natural selection, wherefore? What is the good of all this social activity beyond helping unessential creatures to feed and propagate?”
  • “I can imagine no more comfortable frame of mind for the conduct of life than a humorous resignation.”