Literature

Excelsior!

In 1917, when a young T.S. Eliot was working at Lloyds Bank in London, one of his superiors met the critic I.A. Richards on holiday in Switzerland.

The banker was relieved to hear that Richards thought Eliot a good poet. Some of his colleagues had feared that poetry was a poor grounding for a career in finance, but if the young man really enjoyed his hobby then perhaps it could help him in his work.

In fact, the banker said, “I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become a branch manager.”

In the Old Days, We Made Our Own Fun

“The Travelling Egg”

Procure a goose’s egg, and after opening and cleaning it, put a bat into the shell, and then glue a piece of white paper fast over the aperture. The motions of the poor little prisoner in struggling to get free, will cause the egg to roll about in a manner that will excite much astonishment.

— Samuel Williams, The Boy’s Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations, 1847

“How to Melt Steel”

Heat a piece in the fire till it is red hot; then holding it with a pair of pinchers or tongs, take in the other hand a stick of brimstone, and touch the piece of steel with it; immediately after the contact, you will see the steel melt and drop like a liquid.

— “Uncle George,” Parlour Pastime for the Young, 1857

“The Gun Trick”

Provide yourself with a fowling piece or musket; permit any one to load it, only retaining for yourself the privilege of putting in the ball. But instead of loading it with a real ball, retain the latter in your possession, having had a recognisable mark put upon it, and load with an artificial one made of black lead. On the application of the ramrod the latter will, of course be easily reduced to powder. When you are fired at, you produce the marked ball, holding it between your thumb and finger.

— Alfred Elliott, The Playground and the Parlour, 1868

Light Reading

Selected winners of the Bookseller/Diagram prize for oddest book title of the year:

  • Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978)
  • The Joy of Chickens (1980)
  • The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling (1983)
  • Versailles: The View From Sweden (1988)
  • How to Avoid Huge Ships (1992)
  • Highlights in the History of Concrete (1994)
  • Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996)
  • The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2003)
  • Bombproof Your Horse (2004)
  • People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (2005)
  • The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (2006)

Last year’s winner, The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais, is the subject of some controversy, as it was written by an automatic authoring machine rather than a human being. But, said awards administrator Philip Stone, “Given the number of celebrity memoirs out there that are ghostwritten, I don’t think it’s too strange.”

Shocking!

Unfortunate literary non-sequiturs:

“Mrs. Glegg had doubtless the glossiest and crispest brown curls in her drawers, as well as curls in various degrees of fuzzy laxness.” — George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

“She touched his organ, and from that bright epoch even it, the old companion of his happiest hours, incapable as he had thought of elevation, began a new and deified existence.” — Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit

“‘Oh, I can’t explain!’ cried Roderick impatiently, returning to his work. ‘I’ve only one way of expressing my deepest feelings–it’s this.’ And he swung his tool.” — Henry James, Roderick Hudson

“Mrs Ray declared that she had not found it all hard, and then,–with a laudable curiosity, seeing how little she had known about balls,–desired to have an immediate account of Rachel’s doings.” — Anthony Trollope, Rachel Ray

“The organ ‘gins to swell;
She’s coming, she’s coming!
My lady comes at last …”

— W.M. Thackeray, “At the Church Gate”

“Oh hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!”

— Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”

One of two “Letters to Cynthia” in Christopher Morley’s Mince Pie (1919) is titled “In Praise of Boobs.”

Hard Bargaining

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In Robert Louis Stevenson’s story “The Bottle Imp,” the titular imp will grant its owner (almost) any wish, but if the owner dies with the bottle then he burns in hell. He may sell the bottle, but he must charge less than he paid for it, and the new buyer must understand these conditions.

Now, no one would buy such a bottle for 1 cent, as he could not then sell it again. (The imp can’t make you immortal, or support prices smaller than one cent, or alter the conditions.) And if 1 cent is too low a price, then so is 2 cents, for the same reason. And so on, apparently forever. It would be irrational to buy the bottle for any price.

But intuitively most people would consider $1,000 a reasonable price to pay for the use of a wish-granting genie. Who’s right?

See also Tug of War.

Stuff and Nonsense

Full text of a letter from Edward Lear to Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer, 1862:

Thrippy Pilliwinx, —

Inkly tinky pobblebockle able-squabs? Flosky! Beebul trimble flosky! Okulscratch abibblebongibo, viddle squibble tog-atog, ferry moyassity amsky flamsky damsky crocklefether squiggs.

Flinky wisty pomm,

Slushypipp

“I was much distressed by next door people who had twin babies and played the violin,” Lear once wrote, “but one of the twins died, and the other has eaten the fiddle–so all is peace.”

Literary Pangrams

This excerpt from Coriolanus contains every letter of the alphabet but Z:

O, a kiss
Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!
Now, by the jealous queen of heaven, that kiss
I carried from thee, dear; and my true lip
Hath virgin’d it e’er since.

This one, from Milton’s Paradise Lost (from the Z in grazed to the b in Both), contains all of them:

Likening his Maker to the grazed ox,
Jehovah, who, in one night, when he passed
From Egypt marching, equalled with one stroke
Both her first-born and all her bleating gods.

See Quick Brown Fox, A Biblical Pangram, A Pangrammatic Highway, and Nevermore.

Bleah!

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If vampires are immortal, must feed regularly, and make a new vampire of each victim …

… shouldn’t we all be vampires by now?

Strange Newspapers

Between 1834 and 1874, proud New Englander James Johns published the Vermont Autograph and Remarker, an irregular collection of history, essays, verse, and fiction. It was irregular because Johns wrote each issue in pen, in a beautifully lucid newspaper font with no erasures. Johns bought a small hand press in 1857 but rarely used it — he found he was actually faster with the quill.

In January 1890, a tremendous blizzard struck the Sierra Nevada, paralyzing a Southern Pacific Railroad train and trapping its 600 passengers in their cars for three weeks. On Jan. 31 one of them, George T. McCully, began publishing a newspaper, the Snowbound, “issued every week-day afternoon by S. P. Prisoner in Car No. 36, blockaded at Reno, Nevada.” We know that McCully offered to sell copies of the hand-penciled four-page daily for 25 cents each; it’s not clear whether he got past the first issue. Perhaps he ran out of paper.

Double-Booked

In 1975, Émile Ajar won the Prix Goncourt for his novel The Life Before Us. The French literary prize is awarded only once to each author, so Ajar could not be recognized again.

Or so you’d think. It turned out that Ajar was a pen name of Romain Gary, who had already won the prize in 1956.

Gary/Ajar remains the only author to win the medal twice.

Writing Weather

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1816 is known as “the year without a summer” — the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora flung huge amounts of volcanic dust into the atmosphere, dropping temperatures worldwide and giving the sky a sallow cast that’s visible in Turner’s landscapes of the period (above).

It was a great calamity for farmers, but a boon for horror literature — the “wet, ungenial summer” forced Mary Shelley and John Polidori indoors on their Swiss holiday, where they wrote both Frankenstein and The Vampyre.

Temp Work

Strapped for cash in the mid-1950s, Kurt Vonnegut took a job at Sports Illustrated, though he “didn’t care or know squat about sports.”

They asked him to write a piece about a racehorse that had jumped the fence at the local track.

He fed a page into his typewriter, stared at it for several hours, typed “The horse jumped over the fucking fence” and left.

Comp Lit

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Emerson’s rules for reading:

  1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
  2. Never read any but famed books.
  3. Never read any but what you like.

“Or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, ‘No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en; / In brief, Sir, study what you most affect.'”

The Blitz Previewed

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E. Douglas Fawcett’s 1893 story “Hartmann the Anarchist” described an aerial bombardment of London — 47 years before World War II:

With eyes riveted now to the massacre, I saw frantic women trodden down by men; huge clearings made by the shells and instantly filled up; house-fronts crushing horses and vehicles as they fell; fires bursting out on all sides, to devour what they listed, and terrified police struggling wildly and helplessly in the heart of the press.

Hartmann rains dynamite bombs, shells, and blazing petroleum from his airship before a mutiny brings him down. “It has not been my aim to write history,” writes the narrator. “I have sought to throw light only on one of its more romantic corners.”

See also Wreck of the Titan and A Blindfold Bullseye.

Precocious

Though she died at age 8, Marjory Fleming (1803-1811) had the soul of a mature writer. Her diary became hugely popular in Victorian London:

I am now going to tell you the horrible and wretched plaege that my multiplication table gives me; you cant conceive it. The most Devilish thing is 8 times 8 and 7 times 7; it is what nature itself cant endure.

And she was rumored to be the favorite poet of Walter Scott, who reportedly told her aunt, “Her repeating of Shakespeare overpowers me as nothing else does.”

Of summer I am very fond,
And love to bathe into a pond;
The look of sunshine dies away,
And will not let me out to play;
I love the morning’s sun to spy
Glittering through the casement’s eye,
The rays of light are very sweet,
And puts away the taste of meat;
The balmy breeze comes down from heaven,
And makes us like for to be living.

In her last illness she offered to recite a poem for her father; when he asked her to choose one, she startled him with Burns’ “Why am I loth to leave this earthly scene?”

See also An Unacknowledged Genius and Child’s Play.

Orwell That Ends Well

Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, rendered in Newspeak by J.A. Lindon:

Person or unperson. Query.
Unbellyfeel Ingsoc, oldthink, ownthink,
(PLUSUNGOOD THOUGHTCRIME. PENALTY: UNLIFE)
Or Ingsoc foolthink doubleplusungood
Own unlife bellyfeel, make self unlifer,
Unperson, unofficial. (PENALTY: JOYCAMP)
Only unwake: become unlifer. (FOOLTHINK)
Unwake, and thusby unperform our Ingsoc duty
(GOODWISE NOTE: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU)
Seems goodthink (DOUBLEPLUSUNGOOD THOUGHTCRIME).
Unwake: become unlifer.
Unwake — ungoodwise dream (PLUS-CERTAINFUL
SELF-BRINGED RESULT) —
Yes, there is the unsmoothness —
Correctful treatment in the Miniluv,
Post fail-maked self unlifer with a cord,
Is allsuch stopful — yes, there is the reason
We still goodwise perform our Ingsoc duty
Until we’re vaporized, although (CRIMETHINK)
Unbellyfeeling Ingsoc and Big Brother,
The Junior Anti-Sex League, rationed goods,
Sternness of Inner Party and its just
And ungood “watch and query” note on us,
We seemcould oldthink “free” perhaps become
With a bigneedle. (FOOLTHINK) Who would work,
Prolewise and sweatful, doubleplusunfresh,
For Ingsoc if he bellyfeeled to know
Correctful treatment in the Miniluv
That joyful place from which so few return,
And those how bigwise changed? Plusgooderwise
We live goodthinkful til some Spy reports us,
For IGNORANCE is STRENGTH, FREEDOM is SLAVERY,
And WAR (against the Party) brings NO PEACE
Inside the Miniluv till we become
Unpersons (now OFFICIAL). But unhard!
The clingful and face-crimewise-good-to-see
Ophelia! Joysexful girl, forget
My many faults in your Two Minutes Hate!

See also Hamlet in Klingon and GRKTRGDY.

Epic Verse

The world’s longest handwritten poem is nearly 1 kilometer long. Unveiled by French notary Patrick Huet in 2006, Pieces of Hope to the Echo of the World comprises 7,547 verses.

All that length is necessary — the poem is one long acrostic. The initial letters of its lines spell out the complete Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Special Delivery

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This is the Flammarion woodcut, so named because it first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’Atmosphère. No one knows who created it; it’s thought to depict a medieval pilgrim who discovers the point where earth and sky meet.

Flammarion’s book itself seemed touched by magic. As the astronomer was completing a chapter on the force of the wind, a sudden gale blew the last few pages out the window and off in a whirlwind among the trees. Then a downpour started, and Flammarion gave them up as lost.

He was astonished, then, a few days later when his printer delivered the full chapter, with no pages missing.

It seems the porter who normally brought Flammarion’s proof sheets had been returning to his office when he noticed the sodden manuscript leaves on the ground. He assumed that he himself had dropped them and so had collected them and carried them to the printer without telling anyone.

“Remember,” Flammarion writes, “it was a chapter on the strange doings of the wind.”

Mouthful

Composed in 390 B.C., Aristophanes’ play Ecclesiazusae concludes with the name of a dish on which the characters plan to feast.

The word is lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimupotrimmatosilphioliparomelitoaktakexhumeno-kichlepikossuphophattoperisteralektruonoptopiphallidokinklopeleioplagoosiraiobaphetragalopterugon. At 169 letters, it’s still the longest word in the Greek language.

Fine Scotch

A sentence composed entirely of contractions taken from Robert Burns poems:

E’en th’ flow’rs afiel’ ha’e fac’t heav’n wi’ th’ rightfu’, shinin’ blessin’ that’s prevail’d i’ th’ min’ o’ th’ faithfu’ servan’ an’ th’ mournfu’, wand’ring craz’d o’ th’ worl': heav’n’s pray’rs ha’e honour’d th’ cheerfu’ an’ th’ gen’rous ‘gainst t’other worl’s glib-tongu’d, wither’d pow’r.

When the English poet laureate Alfred Austin unveiled a statue of Burns in 1896, Punch proposed some remarks for him.

“Ye ken I canna mak’ ye a lang speech, bein’ mair a wanchansie mon, ram-feezled wi’ writin’, than a skirlin’, tapetless glib-gabbet,” he was to say. “Burns was nae feckless gowk, sae it’s a pleasure tae me tae unveil this sonsie statue.”

Peer Review

Was James Fenimore Cooper a great writer? His fellow authors didn’t think so. Mark Twain counted 114 literary offenses on a single page of The Deerslayer, including an “airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol” style that Bret Harte parodied:

Judge Tompkins: ‘Genevra, the logs which compose yonder fire seem to have been incautiously chosen. The sibilation produced by the sap, which exudes copiously therefrom, is not conducive to composition.’

Genevra: ‘True, father, but I thought it would be preferable to the constant crepitation which is apt to attend the combustion of more seasoned ligneous fragments.’

Of Cooper’s characters, James Russell Lowell wrote, “The women he draws from one model don’t vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”

“Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” Twain concluded, “and … the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.” Perhaps they were jealous.

Unquote

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“Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” — London Critic, 1855

Conflict of Interest

Eric Temple Bell led two lives. By day he was a mathematician at Caltech; by night he wrote science fiction as John Taine.

By a happy chance the two personalities met in 1951, when the Pasadena Star-News asked Taine to review Bell’s book Mathematics, Queen and Servant of Science.

Not one to lose an opportunity, he accepted. “The last flap of the jacket says Bell ‘is perhaps mathematics’ greatest interpreter,'” Taine wrote. “Knowing the author well, the reviewer agrees.”

Self-Help

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Someone once asked G.K. Chesterton what book he’d most like to have on a desert island.

He answered, “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”