“Oh no! Not another fucking elf!” — Oxford English professor Hugo Dyson, interrupting J.R.R. Tolkien during an early reading from The Lord of the Rings
In the early 1960s, a computer analysis showed that six different authors had written the Epistles of St. Paul.
That would be big news, but it also showed that James Joyce’s Ulysses had been written by five people — none of whom had composed A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Jonathan Swift liked to compose “Latin puns” — stanzas of nonsense Latin that would render English when spoken:
Has an acuti,
No lasso finis,
Omi de armis tres,
Cantu disco ver
Meas alo ver?
Read that aloud and you’ll hear:
Moll is a beauty,
Has an acute eye,
No lass so fine is,
Molly divine is.
O my dear mistress,
I’m in a distress,
Can’t you discover
Me as a lover?
In a later letter, Swift wrote:
I ritu a verse o na molli o mi ne,
Asta lassa me pole, a l(ae)dis o fine;
I ne ver neu a niso ne at in mi ni is;
A manat a glans ora sito fer diis.
De armo lis abuti hos face an hos nos is
As fer a sal illi, as reddas aro sis;
Ae is o mi molli is almi de lite;
Illo verbi de, an illo verbi nite.
I writ you a verse on a Molly o’ mine,
As tall as a May-pole, a lady so fine;
I never knew any so neat in mine eyes;
A man, at a glance or a sight of her, dies
Dear Molly’s a beauty, whose face and whose nose is
As fair as a lily, as red as a rose is;
A kiss o’ my Molly is all my delight;
I love her by day, and I love her by night.
See also this verse.
It is said that, when Charles Dudley Warner was the editor of the ‘Hartford Press,’ back in the ‘sixties,’ arousing the patriotism of the State with his vigorous appeals, one of the type-setters came in from the composing-room, and, planting himself before the editor, said: ‘Well, Mr. Warner, I’ve decided to enlist in the army.’ With mingled sensations of pride and responsibility, Mr. Warner replied encouragingly that he was glad to see the man felt the call of duty. ‘Oh, it isn’t that,’ said the truthful compositor, ‘but I’d rather be shot than try to set any more of your damned copy.’
– John Wilson, “The Importance of the Proof-Reader,” 1901
RMS Queen Mary was one of the world’s largest ocean liners in December 1942, but that didn’t impress Mother Nature. As the ship steamed off the coast of Scotland during a gale, an enormous freak wave struck her broadside and sent her listing fully 52 degrees. The wave may have been 28 meters high; it smashed windows on the bridge 90 feet above the waterline. Later investigations estimated that 5 more inches of list would have turned her over.
The incident inspired Paul Gallico to write The Poseidon Adventure.
Margaret Mitchell composed Gone With the Wind while nursing a broken ankle.
She wrote the last chapter first and the first chapter last.
In 1969, French author Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel without the letter e:
Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pin it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp — fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? — a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign — but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.
Remarkably, La Disparition has been translated into six different languages, each imposing a similar constraint — the Spanish, for instance, contains no a, and the English, here, no e.
Mark Twain’s list of 27 items to be rescued from a boardinghouse fire:
- Persons toward whom the operator feels a tender sentiment, but has not yet declared himself
- First cousins
- Second cousins
- Young lady relations by marriage
- Third cousins, and young lady friends of the family
- The unclassified
- Children under 10 years of age
- Young widows
- Young married females
- Elderly married ditto
- Elderly widows
- Boarders in general
- Female domestics
- Male ditto
“In either ascending or descending the stairs,” Twain wrote, “the young gentleman shall walk beside the young lady, if the stairs are wide enough to allow it; otherwise he must precede her. In no case must he follow her. This is de rigueur.”
Titivillus was the patron demon of scribes in the Middle Ages, blamed for introducing errors into their work.
His entry in the Oxford English Dictionary contains a typo.
In 1890, a well-intentioned New Yorker named Eugene Schieffelin released 80 starlings in Central Park. He wanted to introduce every bird mentioned the works of William Shakespeare into the United States. (In The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, Hotspur says, “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.’”)
He should have reconsidered. Scientists estimate that those birds have multiplied into more than 200 million in North America, where the starling has become a major pest, outcompeting other birds for nest holes. Opponents of genetically modified organisms still point to Schieffelin’s act to warn of the dangers of invasive species.
In 1977, Los Angeles freelance writer Chuck Ross submitted a typed manuscript to 14 publishers and 13 literary agents. Ross claimed it was an original work, but in fact it was a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps, which had won the National Book Award in 1969.
All 27 recipients failed to recognize Kosinski’s work, and all 27 rejected the manuscript.
Sadly, this is nothing new. From Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888:
A disappointed literary aspirant, weary of having his articles declined with thanks, and doubtful of his critics’ infallibility, copied out ‘Samson Agonistes,’ which he rechristened ‘Like a Giant Refreshed,’ and the manuscript, as an original work of his own, went the rounds of publishers and editors. It was declined on various pleas, and the letters he received afforded him so much amusement that he published them in the St. James’s Gazette. None of the critics discovered that the work was Milton’s. One, who had evidently not even looked at it, deemed it a sensational novel; another recognized a certain amount of merit, but thought it was disfigured by ‘Scotticisms;’ a third was sufficiently pleased to offer to publish it, provided the author contributed forty pounds towards expenses.’
On April 13, 1844, a curious headline appeared in the New York Sun:
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK:
* * * * * * *
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!
* * * * * * *
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON’S
The story told of an amazing 75-hour crossing of the Atlantic by European balloonist Monck Mason, giving extensive details and including a diagram of the craft.
Two days later the Sun printed a retraction, saying that “we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous” but “we by no means think such a project impossible.”
That compliment would have pleased the hoax writer. His name was Edgar Allan Poe.
What John de Mandeville lacked in travel experience, he made up in imagination:
In Ethiope are such men that have but one foote, and they go so fast yt it is a great marvaill, & that is a large fote that the shadow thereof covereth ye body from son or rayne when they lye uppon their backes, and when their children be first borne they loke like russet, and when they waxe olde then they be all blacke.
The writer published a singular book full of such prodigies in the 14th century, most of it apparently borrowed from other writers or spun from whole cloth. Who would do such a thing? We’ll never know — as it turns out, the name “Mandeville” itself was made up.
A “bookwheel,” designed by Italian military engineer Agostino Ramelli (1531-1600).
Because it keeps the reader’s place in various texts, it’s considered an early prototype of the World Wide Web.
Text of an ancient Macedonian scroll discovered in Greece in 1986:
On the formal wedding of [Theti]ma and Dionysophon I write a curse, and of all other wo[men], widows and virgins, but of Thetima in particular, and I entrust upon Makron and [the] demons that only whenever I dig out and unroll and re-read this, [then] may they wed Dionysophon, but not before; and may he never wed any woman but me; and may [I] grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. I [am] your supplicant: Have mercy on [your dear one], dear demons, Dagina(?), for I am abandoned of all my dear ones. But please keep this for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably and to me grant [ha]ppiness and bliss.
It would have been written in the 4th or 3rd century B.C.
Buckminster Fuller kept the most comprehensive diary in human history, recording practically everything that happened to him between 1915 and 1983.
The assembled journals take up 270 feet of shelf space.
Top 10 most translated authors in the world as of January 2006, according to UNESCO’s “Index Translationum”:
- Walt Disney Productions
- Agatha Christie
- Jules Verne
- Vladimir Lenin
- Enid Blyton
- Barbara Cartland
- William Shakespeare
- Danielle Steele
- Hans Christian Andersen
- Stephen King
Each has been translated more than 1,500 times.
Mark Twain in the laboratory of his friend, inventor Nikola Tesla, where in 1894 Twain briefly became a human light bulb:
In Fig. 13 a most curious and weird phenomenon is illustrated. A few years ago electricians would have considered it quite remarkable, if indeed they do not now. The observer holds a loop of bare wire in his hands. The currents induced in the loop by means of the “resonating” coil over which it is held, traverse the body of the observer, and at the same time, as they pass between his bare hands, they bring two or three lamps held there to bright incandescence. Strange as it may seem, these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.
– T.C. Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” Century Magazine, April 1895
Did 12th-century chaplain Andreas Capellanus have a time machine? His treatise The Art of Courtly Love sounds surprisingly familiar:
Throughout all the ages, there have been only four degrees in love:
The first consists in arousing hope;
The second in offering kisses;
The third in the enjoyment of intimate embraces;
The fourth in the abandonment of the entire person.
Mail addressed to Dr. Seuss was frequently misdirected to Dr. Hans Suess, a nuclear physicist who lived in the same town, La Jolla, Calif.
The scientist bore this patiently, but he was overshadowed even in death. His personal papers are housed in a San Diego library named after … Dr. Seuss.
In 2004, when vanity press PublishAmerica disdained science fiction and claimed to be a “traditional publisher,” the SF community decided to teach it a lesson. Dozens of authors collaborated on Atlanta Nights, a deliberate attempt to create the worst novel possible:
She went to the door, her hips swaying like palm trees in a Hawaiian hurricane.
Bruce lied there in the bed, trying to recover his memory. All he could remember was the screeching of tires’, like a steam engine gone crazy, and then there was just all that pain. Hell on wheels, that’s what it was, yeses.
PublishAmerica took the bait, accepting the manuscript that December. When the authors revealed the hoax, the company retracted its acceptance, but the point was made. “The world is full of bad books written by amateurs,” wrote reviewer Teresa Nielsen Hayden. “Atlanta Nights is a bad book written by experts.”
New York’s Library Hotel has 10 floors, each decorated according to a major category in the Dewey Decimal System. Each room has its own subcategory or genre, including appropriate books and art. Rooms:
- Third Floor: Social Sciences. 300.006 Law, 300.005 Money, 300.004 World Culture, 300.003 Economics, 300.002 Political Science, 300.001 Communication
- Fourth Floor: Language. 400.006 Ancient Language, 400.005 Middle Eastern Language, 400.004 Asian Language, 400.003 Germanic Language, 400.002 Romance Language, 400.001 Slavic Language
- Fifth Floor: Math and Science. 500.006 Astronomy, 500.005 Dinosaurs, 500.004 Botany, 500.003 Zoology, 500.002 Geology, 500.001 Mathematics
- Sixth Floor: Technology. 600.006 Health & Beauty, 600.005 Computers, 600.004 Medicine, 600.003 Management, 600.002 Manufacturing, 600.001 Advertising
- Seventh Floor: The Arts. 700.006 Fashion Design, 700.005 Music, 700.004 Photography, 700.003 Performing Arts, 700.002 Paintings, 700.001 Architecture
- Eighth Floor: Literature. 800.006 Mystery, 800.005 Fairy Tales, 800.004 Dramatic Literature, 800.003 Poetry, 800.002 Classic Fiction, 800.001 Erotic Literature
- Ninth Floor: History. 900.006 Biography, 900.005 Geography & Travel, 900.004 Asian History, 900.003 Oceanography, 900.002 Ancient History, 900.001 20th Century History
- Tenth Floor: General Knowledge. 1000.006 New Media, 1000.005 Journalism, 1000.004 Museums, 1000.003 Encyclopedic Works, 1000.002 Almanacs, 1000.001 Libraries
- Eleventh Floor: Philosophy. 1100.006 Love, 1100.005 Paranormal, 1100.004 Psychology, 1100.003 Philosophy, 1100.002 Ethics, 1100.001 Logic
- Twelfth Floor: Religion. 1200.006 Ancient Religion (Mythology), 1200.005 Native American Religion, 1200.004 Germanic Religion, 1200.003 New Age, 1200.002 African Religion, 1200.001 Eastern Religion
“She is now in the vile embrace of the Apollo of the evening. Her head rests upon his shoulder, her face is upturned to his, her bare arm is almost around his neck, her partly nude swelling breast heaves tumultuously against his, face to face they whirl on, his limbs interwoven with hers, his strong right arm around her yielding form, he presses her to him until every curve in the contour of her body thrills with the amorous contact. Her eyes look into his, but she sees nothing; the soft music fills the room, but she hears it not; he bends her body to and fro, but she knows it not; his hot breath, tainted with strong drink, is on her hair and cheek, his lips almost touch her forehead, yet she does not shrink; his eyes, gleaming with a fierce, intolerable lust, gloat over her, yet she does not quail. She is filled with the rapture of sin in its intensity; her spirit is[Pg 16] inflamed with passion and lust is gratified in thought. With a last low wail the music ceases, and the dance for the night is ended, but not the evil work of the night.”
– From the Ball-Room to Hell by T.A. Faulkner, Ex-Dancing Master, Formerly Proprietor of the Los Angeles Dancing Academy and Ex-President of Dancing Masters’ Association of the Pacific Coast, 1892
“Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.” — Steve Martin