False book-backs ordered by Charles Dickens in 1851 to fill blank spaces in his study at Tavistock House:
- Five Minutes in China (3 volumes)
- Forty Winks at the Pyramids (2 volumes)
- History of the Middling Ages (6 volumes)
- Jonah’s Account of the Whale
- Captain Parry’s Virtues of Cold Tar
- Kant’s Ancient Humbugs (10 volumes)
- Bowwowdom: A Poem
- The Quarrelly Review
- The Art of Cutting the Teeth
- Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing (3 volumes)
- Heavysides Conversations With Nobody (3 volumes)
- Growler’s Gruffiology, With Appendix (4 volumes)
- Miss Biffin on Deportment
- Lady Godiva on the Horse
- Munchausen’s Modern Miracles
- On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets
And Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep, “as many volumes as are required to fill up.”
In 1977, a gravely ill 19-month-old Qatari girl was flown to a London hospital, where her condition continued to worsen, baffling her doctors.
On the sixth day, the observing nurse was startled to see that the girl began to lose her hair. She realized that the patient’s symptoms were strikingly similar to those in Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse, which she had been reading.
In Christie’s novel, the murder victims had been killed by thallium poisoning. Tests confirmed elevated levels of thallium in the girl’s urine, and doctors treated her accordingly. Three weeks later she was well enough to go home.
Visiting Rome in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain reflects on “the unsubstantial, unlasting character of fame.” He imagines how the people of 5868 A.D. will remember Ulysses S. Grant:
URIAH S. (or Z.) GRAUNT — popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say flourished about A.D. 742; but the learned Ah-ah Foo-foo states that he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet, and flourished about A.D. 1328, some three centuries after the Trojan war instead of before it. He wrote ‘Rock me to Sleep, Mother.’
“These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed.”
Laid up in the hospital, James Thurber passed the time doing crossword puzzles.
One day he asked a nurse, “What seven-letter word has three u’s in it?”
She said, “I don’t know, but it must be unusual.”
While adapting The Big Sleep for the screen, a confused Howard Hawks wired Raymond Chandler asking who was supposed to have killed General Sternwood’s chauffer in the novel. Chandler responded:
When a Paris news editor asked Ernest Hemingway for an accounting of his expenses, he cabled:
SUGGEST YOU UPSTICK BOOKS ASSWARDS
A movie studio once approached Eugene O’Neill to write a screenplay for a Jean Harlow film. They asked him to reply in a collect telegram of no more than 20 words. He wrote:
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO O’NEILL
When Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in in 1969, he received a telegram from a Parisian named Georges Godot … apologizing for keeping him waiting.
In The Hunting of the Snark, the Butcher confirms for the Beaver that Two and One are Three:
Taking Three as the subject to reason about–
A convenient number to state–
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight.
The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
Exactly and perfectly true.
Fittingly for Carroll, the math works:
In 1947, the University of Chicago rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis, calling it “unprofessional.”
Twenty-four years later, in 1971, they granted the degree — accepting Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle as a thesis in anthropology.
Notice, Hartford Courant, May 20, 1875:
TWO HUNDRED & FIVE DOLLARS REWARD–At the great base ball match on Tuesday, while I was engaged in hurrahing, a small boy walked off with an English-made brown silk UMBRELLA belonging to me, and forgot to bring it back. I will pay $5 for the return of that umbrella in good condition to my house on Farmington avenue. I do not want the boy (in an active state) but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains.
Samuel L. Clemens
H.G. Wells’ 1914 novel The World Set Free is not his best known, but it’s certainly his most prescient — he predicted nuclear weapons:
She felt torn out of the world. There was nothing else in the world but a crimson-purple glare and sound, deafening, all-embracing, continuing sound. Every other light had gone out about her, and against this glare hung slanting walls, pirouetting pillars, projecting fragments of cornices, and a disorderly flight of huge angular sheets of glass.
The novel imagines an invention that accelerates radioactive decay, producing unthinkably powerful bombs. (Wells even dedicated the novel “to Frederick Soddy’s interpretation of radium.”)
This application was far ahead of the science of the time — physicist Leó Szilárd later said it helped inspire his own conception of a nuclear chain reaction.
If that’s not impressive enough: In Wells’ novel, allies drop an atomic bomb on Germany during a world war in the 1940s!
“If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” — Anatole France
Curiously, when France died in 1924, doctors found that his brain was two-thirds normal size. But, said surgeon Louis Guillaume, “It was the most beautiful brain one could dream of seeing. Its convolutions were marvelous.”
Only four days ago, right in the next farm house to the one where I am spending the summer, a grandmother, old and gray and sweet, one of the loveliest spirits in the land, was sitting at her work, when her young grandson crept in and got down an old, battered, rusty gun which had not been touched for many years and was supposed not to be loaded, and pointed it at her, laughing, and threatening to shoot. In her fright she ran screaming and pleading toward the door on the other side of the room; but as she passed him he placed the gun almost against her very breast and pulled the trigger! He had supposed it was not loaded. And he was right: it wasn’t. So there wasn’t any harm done.
— Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth,” 1882
(“An Unpublished Poem by Burns”)
O mickle yeuks the keckle doup,
An’ a’ unsicker girns the graith,
For wae and wae! the crowdies loup
O’er jouk an’ hallan, braw an’ baith
Where ance the coggie hirpled fair,
And blithesome poortith toomed the loof,
There’s nae a burnie giglet rare
But blaws in ilka jinking coof.
The routhie bield that gars the gear
Is gone where glint the pawky een.
And aye the stound is birkin lear
Where sconnered yowies wheeped yestreen,
The creeshie rax wi’ skelpin’ kaes
Nae mair the howdie bicker whangs,
Nor weanies in their wee bit claes
Glour light as lammies wi’ their sangs.
Yet leeze me on my bonny byke!
My drappie aiblins blinks the noo,
An’ leesome luve has lapt the dyke
Forgatherin’ just a wee bit fou.
And Scotia! while thy rantin’ lunt
Is mirk and moop with gowans fine,
I’ll stowlins pit my unco brunt,
An’ cleek my duds for auld lang syne.
— Punch, collected in James Parton, The Humorous Poetry of the English Language, 1884
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.”
“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
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.”
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.”
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.
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,
“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.”
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.
If vampires are immortal, must feed regularly, and make a new vampire of each victim …
… shouldn’t we all be vampires by now?
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.
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.
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.
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.