Unshelved

Nominations are currently open for the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. This year’s candidates:

  • Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen
  • Advanced Pavement Research, edited by Bo Tian
  • The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing-Loh
  • Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson
  • Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the People That Used to Love Them, by Diana Rajchel
  • The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home, by Melissa Margaret Schneider
  • Strangers Have the Best Candy, by Margaret Meps Schulte

Recent winners have included How to Poo on a Date, by Mats & Enzo (2013), Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley (2012), Cooking With Poo, by Saiyuud Diwong (2011), Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way, by Michael R. Young (2010), and Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina (2009).

You can vote here. “This is one of strongest years I have seen in more than three decades of administering the prize, which highlights the crème de la crème of unintentionally nonsensical, absurd and downright head-scratching titles,” said The Bookseller‘s Horace Bent, who organizes the contest. “Let other awards cheer the contents within, the Diagram will always continually judge the book by its cover (title).”

Misc

  • Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
  • After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
  • If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
  • Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
  • “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand

No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.

A Head for Letters

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On June 29, 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined a subject he knew only as a “gentlewoman”:

In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. … This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force — sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. … In analyzing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power.

The subject was Charlotte Brontë. She had attended the reading with George Smith, presenting themselves as “Mr. and Miss Fraser.” Phrenology was fashionable at the time, and Charlotte, like many others, was willing to overlook its failures to appreciate its successes. Smith’s reading said, “He is an admirer of the fair sex. He is very kind to children. … Is active and practical though not hustling or contentious.” Smith found this “not so happy,” but Charlotte said, “It is a sort of miracle — like — like — like as the very life itself.”

When in Rome …

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Another of these dreams he had used as a basis for ‘Pickman’s Model,’ while still another formed the nucleus for ‘The Call of Cthulhu.’ I referred to this story one day, pronouncing the strange word as though it were spelled K-Thool-Hoo. Lovecraft looked blank for an instant, then corrected me firmly, informing me that the word was pronounced, as nearly as I can put it down in print, K-Lütl-Lütl. I was surprised, and asked why he didn’t spell it that way if such was the pronunciation. He replied in all seriousness that the word was originated by the denizens of his story and that he had only recorded their own way of spelling it. Lovecraft’s own invention had assumed an actual reality in his mind.

— Donald Wandrei, “Lovecraft in Providence,” in Peter Cannon, ed., Lovecraft Remembered, 1998

Podcast Episode 47: The Scariest Travel Books Ever Written

Favell Lee Mortimer

Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them.

We’ll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union’s domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium.

Favell Lee Mortimer’s travel books for children are all available online:

The Countries of Europe Described (1850)

Far Off, or, Asia and Australia Described (1852)

Far Off, or, Africa and America Described (1854)

In 2005 Todd Pruzan published a collection of the most xenophobic passages, titled The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.

Listener mail:

Here’s a BBC documentary on 1925 serum run to Nome.

Fast Company has an article about the breeding of friendly foxes by Russian researchers.

And National Geographic goes into greater depth regarding the genetics and evolutionary aspects of domestication in this 2011 article.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener David White, who sent these corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks for listening!

Scenery Trouble

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Walter Scott’s 1816 novel The Antiquary met with rapturous praise — the Edinburgh Review pronounced the chapter on the escape from the tide to be “the very best description we have ever met, in verse or in prose, in ancient or in modern writing.”

But, critic Andrew Lang quietly noted, “No reviewer seems to have noticed that the sun is made to set in the sea, on the east coast of Scotland.”

Asked for his opinion of Crime and Punishment, Paul Dirac said, “He describes a sunset, and then a little later the same evening the sun sets again. That kind of mistake does jar on me.”

Time Passages

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In ordinary life we shift frequently between observing the world before us and summoning impressions from memory. Reproducing this experience in fiction can require an immense sophistication of the reader. In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1983), Gérard Genette examines a passage from Proust’s Jean Santeuil in which Jean finds the hotel in which lives Marie Kossichef, whom he once loved, and compares his impressions with those that he once thought he would experience today:

“Sometimes passing in front of the hotel he remembered the rainy days when he used to bring his nursemaid that far, on a pilgrimage. But he remembered them without the melancholy that he then thought he would surely someday savor on feeling that he no longer loved her. For this melancholy, projected in anticipation prior to the indifference that lay ahead, came from his love. And this love existed no more.”

Understanding this one paragraph requires shifting our focus between the present and the past nine times. If we designate the sections by consecutive letters, and if 1 is “once” and 2 is “now,” then A goes in position 2 (“Sometimes passing in front of the hotel he remembered”), B goes in position 1 (“the rainy days when he used to bring his nursemaid that far, on a pilgrimage”), C in 2 (“But he remembered them without”), D in 1 (“the melancholy that he then thought”), E in 2 (“he would surely some day savor on feeling that he no longer loved her”), F in 1 (“For this melancholy, projected in anticipation”), G in 2 (“prior to the indifference that lay ahead”), H in 1 (“came from his love”), and I in 2 (“And his love existed no more”).

This produces a perfect zigzag: A2-B1-C2-D1-E2-F1-G2-H1-I2. And defining the relationships among the elements reveals even more complexity:

If we take section A as the narrative starting point, and therefore as being in an autonomous position, we can obviously define section B as retrospective, and this retrospection we may call subjective in the sense that it is adopted by the character himself, with the narrative doing no more than reporting his present thoughts (‘he remembered …’); B is thus temporally subordinate to A: it is defined as retrospective in relation to A. C continues with a simple return to the initial position without subordination. D is again retrospective, but this time the retrospection is adopted directly by the text: apparently it is the narrator who mentions the absence of melancholy, even if this absence is noticed by the hero. E brings us back to the present, but in a totally different way from C, for this time the present is envisaged as emerging from the past and ‘from the point of view’ of that past: it is not a simple return to the present but an anticipation (subjective, obviously) of the present from within the past; E is thus subordinated to D as D is to C, whereas C, like A, was autonomous. F brings us again to position 1 (the past), on a higher level than anticipation E: simple return again, but return to 1, that is, to a subordinate position. G is again an anticipation, but this time an objective one, for the Jean of the earlier time foresaw the end that was to come to his love precisely as, not indifference, but melancholy at loss of love. H, like F, is a simple return to 1. I, finally, is (like C), a simple return to 2, that is, to the starting point.

All in a passage of 71 words! And Genette points out in passing that a first reading is made even more difficult because of the apparently systematic way in which Proust eliminates simple temporal indicators such as once and now, “so that the reader must supply them himself in order to know here he is.”

Podcast Episode 43: Ben Franklin’s Guide to Living

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As a young man, Benjamin Franklin drew up a “plan for attaining moral perfection” based on a list of 13 virtues. Half a century later he credited the plan for much of his success in life. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore Franklin’s self-improvement plan and find out which vices gave him the most trouble.

We’ll also learn how activist Natan Sharansky used chess to stay sane in Soviet prisons and puzzle over why the Pentagon has so many bathrooms.

Sources for our segment on Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues:

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, 1791.

Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, 2005.

Dinah Birch, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 2009.

Here’s Franklin’s list of virtues:

  1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
  11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

And here’s a sample page from his “little book”:

https://books.google.com/books?id=w0YSAAAAYAAJ

Related: As an exercise in penmanship, the teenage George Washington copied out “110 rules of civility and decent behavior in company and conversation,” and Thomas Jefferson once sent a “decalogue of canons for observation in practical life” to the new father of a baby boy.

Listener mail: Human rights activist Natan Sharansky’s use of mental chess to keep himself sane in Soviet prisons is detailed in his 1988 memoir Fear No Evil and in this BBC News Magazine article.

Greg’s research queries:

The authority on jumping up steps at Trinity College, Cambridge, seems to be G.M. Trevelyan, who became Master there in 1940. In his Trinity College: An Historical Sketch (1972), he writes:

It is a well-authenticated Trinity tradition that Whewell, when Master, jumped up the hall steps at one leap, a feat that is very seldom accomplished even by youthful athletes. Sir George Young told his son Geoffrey Young that he had actually witnessed this performance; Sir George said that the master, in cap and gown, found some undergraduates trying in vain to accomplish the feat. He clapped his cap firmly on his head, took the run, and reached the top of the steps at one bound.

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, he writes, “On a recent visit to Cambridge, General Montgomery, on entering the Great Court at this college, pointed to the hall steps and said to me, ‘Those were the steps my father jumped up at one bound.’ The general’s father, Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, afterwards Bishop, was an undergraduate at Trinity from 1866 to 1870. He came here from Dr Butler’s Harrow with a great reputation as a runner and jumper.”

He adds, “Now we have a fully authenticated case of which I had not heard. Bishop Montgomery himself told his son the general, and the story was often told in the family. The general has asked me to send the facts to you in the hope that publication may elicit further facts.” I don’t know whether he ever received any.

As far as I can tell, Swiss criminologist Karl-Ludwig Kunz’s essay “Criminal Policy in Duckburg” was published only in a 2009 collection titled Images of Crime 3: Representations of Crime and the Criminal, which I can’t seem to get my hands on. The fullest discussion I’ve been able to find in English is this brief 1998 article from the Independent.

The program to distribute bananas to Icelandic children in 1952 is mentioned in science writer Willy Ley’s 1954 book Engineers’ Dreams.

The credit “Diversions by Irving Schwartz” in the 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles is mentioned (but not really explained) in this 2007 Telegram obituary of character actor Joseph di Reda.

MIT historian T.F. Peterson’s 2003 book Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT says that the legend IHTFP (“I hate this fucking place”) “has been unofficially documented in both the U.S. Air Force and at MIT as far back as the 1950s.” This MIT page traces it as far back as 1960 and gives dozens of euphemistic variants.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was submitted by listener Paul Kapp.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!