Lawrence Sterne, after a lifetime of peculiarities, and becoming notorious as an eccentric, curious and able writer, at his death was buried in a graveyard near Tyburn, belonging to the Parish of Mary-le-bone, and the ‘resurrection man’ disinterred his corpse and conveyed it to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge where being laid upon the dissecting table, was at once recognized by one of those present who knew him well while living.
– Bizarre Notes & Queries, February 1886
In Tristram Shandy, the title character laments that he’ll never be able to finish his autobiography, as he seems to need a year to record each day’s events. “It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write.”
But Bertrand Russell noted that if Shandy’s eventful life had lasted forever, no part of his biography would have remained unwritten — for the hundredth day would be recorded in the hundredth year, the thousandth in the thousandth, and so on. “This paradoxical but perfectly true proposition depends upon the fact that the number of days in all time is no greater than the number of years.”
There’s a passage in Seneca’s Medea that seems to have foretold the discovery of America 1400 years before the event:
Venient annis secula seris,
Quibus Oceanus vincula rerum.
Laxet, et ingens pateat tellus
Tethysque novos detegat orbes
Nec sit terris ultima Thule.
“The times will come in later years when ocean may relax the chain of things, and a vast continent may open; the sea may uncover new worlds, and Thule cease to be the last of lands.”
On a trip to America, G.K. Chesterton was taken one night to see the lights of Broadway.
“What a glorious garden of wonders this would be,” he said, “to any one who was lucky enough to be unable to read.”
On June 15, 1822, Jane Williams claimed to have seen a doppelgänger of her friend Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two, in fact. Mary Shelley described the episode in a letter:
She was standing one day … at a window that looked on the Terrace with [Edward] Trelawny — it was day — she saw as she thought Shelley pass by the window, as he often was then, without a coat or jacket — he passed again — now as he passed both times the same way — and as from the side towards which he went each time there was no way to get back except past the window again (except over a wall twenty feet from the ground) she was struck at seeing him pass twice thus & looked out & seeing him no more she cried — ‘Good God can Shelley have leapt from the wall? Where can he be gone?’ Shelley, said Trelawny — ‘No Shelley has past — What do you mean?’ Trelawny says that she trembled exceedingly when she heard this & it proved indeed that Shelley had never been on the terrace & was far off at the time she saw him.
Three weeks later, Shelley drowned in the Bay of Spezia.
Dorothy Parker once attended a Halloween party where she noticed a group of people around a tub of water. She asked what they were doing and was told they were ducking for apples.
“There, but for a typographical error,” she said, “is the story of my life.”
At the height of Mark Twain’s popularity, a group of his friends in New York wanted to send him a birthday greeting.
But Twain was traveling abroad and none of them knew where to direct the letter.
After some hopeless havering they simply addressed it “Mark Twain, God Knows Where.”
Several weeks later a note arrived from Twain.
It said: “He did.”
In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift describes two fictional moons of Mars:
They [the Laputan astronomers] have likewise discovered two lesser stars, or ‘satellites,’ which revolve about Mars, whereof the innermost is distant from the centre of the primary planet exactly three of his diameters, and the outermost five; the former revolves in the space of ten hours, and the latter in twenty-one and a half; so that the squares of their periodical times are very near in the same proportion with the cubes of their distance from the centre of Mars, which evidently shows them to be governed by the same law of gravitation, that influences the other heavenly bodies …
That was in 1726. A century and a half later, two Martian moons were discovered. Phobos and Deimos were in fact about 1.4 and 3.5 diameters from Mars’ center, and they revolved in 7.7 and 30.3 hours, respectively. Voltaire had made a similarly prescient guess in his romance Micromegas of 1752.
Fittingly, two craters on Deimos have been named Swift and Voltaire.
A razor company once invited George Bernard Shaw to shave his famous beard. He responded with a postcard:
I shall never shave, for the same reason that I started a beard, and for the reason my father started his. I remember standing at his side, when I was five, while he was shaving for the last time. “Father,” I asked, “Why do you shave?” He stood there for a full minute and finally looked down at me. “Why the hell do I?” he said.
Mark Twain once received this telegram from a publisher:
NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS.
NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
“There is no worse robber than a bad book.” — Italian saying
Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story was six words long:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
He’s said to have called it his best work.
The knight’s tour is a recreation familiar to chessplayers: Move a knight about an empty chessboard so as to visit each square exactly once.
On this board, each square contains a syllable. Collect them in the right order and you’ll compose a six-line quotation from Shakespeare. What is it?
(Hint: Start on e4, “to”.)
“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges
“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — Somerset Maugham
When he died in 1973, Chicago janitor Henry Darger left his own monument: a 10-volume novel entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
Discovered by his landlords, the fantasy manuscript, illustrated with hundreds of drawings and watercolor paintings, totaled 15,145 single-spaced typed pages. It may be the longest novel ever written.
Notable authors on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books:
- Francis Bacon
- Honoré de Balzac
- Giordano Bruno
- Nicolaus Copernicus
- Daniel Defoe
- René Descartes
- Denis Diderot
- Desiderius Erasmus
- Gustave Flaubert
- Galileo Galilei
- Edward Gibbon
- Thomas Hobbes
- Victor Hugo
- David Hume
- Immanuel Kant
- John Locke
- John Stuart Mill
- John Milton
- Blaise Pascal
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Jonathan Swift
- Émile Zola
George Bernard Shaw said, “Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy rendered in jargon, from Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (1916):
To be, or the contrary? Whether the former or the latter be preferable would seem to admit of some difference of opinion; the answer in the present case being of an affirmative or of a negative character according as to whether one elects on the one hand to mentally suffer the disfavour of fortune, albeit in an extreme degree, or on the other to boldly envisage adverse conditions in the prospect of eventually bringing them to a conclusion. The condition of sleep is similar to, if not indistinguishable from, that of death; and with the addition of finality the former might be considered identical with the latter: so that in this connection it might be argued with regard to sleep that, could the addition be effected, a termination would be put to the endurance of a multiplicity of inconveniences, not to mention a number of downright evils incidental to our fallen humanity, and thus a consummation achieved of a most gratifying nature.
See also Hamlet in Klingon.
More maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- “The Sting of a Reproach is the Truth of it.”
- “Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it, is.”
- “Most fools think they are only ignorant.”
- “Think of three Things — whence you came, where you are going, and to Whom you must account.”
- “Good Sense is a Thing all need, few have, and none think they want.”
- “A true great Man will neither trample on a worm nor sneak to an Emperor.”
- “A Change of Fortune hurts a wise man no more than a Change of the Moon.”
- “Cunning proceeds from Want of Capacity.”
- “Nothing so popular as goodness.”
- “Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar.”
- “Love, cough, and a smoke, can’t well be hid.”
- “Is there anything men take more pains about than to make themselves unhappy?”
Lesser-known maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- “Happy that Nation, — fortunate that age, whose history is not diverting.”
- “He that is rich need not live sparingly, and he that can live sparingly need not be rich.”
- “Kings and bears often worry their keepers.”
- “Proclaim not all thou knowest, all thou owest, all thou hast, nor all thou can’st.”
- “Would you persuade, speak of Interest, not of Reason.”
- “Those who are fear’d, are hated.”
- “Many complain of their Memory, few of their Judgment.”
- “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
- “Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.”
And: “Mankind are very odd Creatures: One Half censure what they practise, the other half practise what they censure; and the rest always say and do as they ought.”
“I’m sorry, Mr Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” — San Francisco Examiner, rejecting a submission by Rudyard Kipling, 1889
The Eye was rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing.
That’s a quote from The Fellowship of the Ring, but this image is actually a star. Fomalhaut, 25 light-years away, is one of the brightest stars in the night sky.
Draw your own conclusions.
Beginning work on a new novel in 1953, Ian Fleming found himself stumped for a name for his hero, a British Secret Service agent. His eye strayed across the bookshelves of his Jamaican estate, and he found “just what I needed.”
It was Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond.
A young man once accosted James Joyce and asked, “May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?”
Joyce replied, “No, it did a lot of other things, too.”