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Literature

A Literary Knight’s Tour

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”.)

A Literary Knight's Tour

Click for Answer

Unquote

“I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Unquote

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — Somerset Maugham

Henry Darger

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.

Unshelved

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
  • Voltaire
  • 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.”

Shakespeare For Lawyers

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.

Richard Redux

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?

Franklin’s Mint

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.”

Unquote

“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 of Sauron

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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.

Stirred, Not Shaken

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.

Writer’s Block

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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.”

Unquote

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“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

Oh Well

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.

A Dead Language Revived

Jonathan Swift liked to compose “Latin puns” — stanzas of nonsense Latin that would render English when spoken:

Mollis abuti,
Has an acuti,
No lasso finis,
Molli divinis.
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.

Warm Words

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

Size Doesn’t Matter

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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.

Dear My Frankly

Margaret Mitchell composed Gone With the Wind while nursing a broken ankle.

She wrote the last chapter first and the first chapter last.

The Void

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.

Inferno Etiquette

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Mark Twain’s list of 27 items to be rescued from a boardinghouse fire:

  1. Fiancees
  2. Persons toward whom the operator feels a tender sentiment, but has not yet declared himself
  3. Sisters
  4. Stepsisters
  5. Nieces
  6. First cousins
  7. Cripples
  8. Second cousins
  9. Invalids
  10. Young lady relations by marriage
  11. Third cousins, and young lady friends of the family
  12. The unclassified
  13. Babies
  14. Children under 10 years of age
  15. Young widows
  16. Young married females
  17. Elderly married ditto
  18. Elderly widows
  19. Clergymen
  20. Boarders in general
  21. Female domestics
  22. Male ditto
  23. Landlady
  24. Landlord
  25. Firemen
  26. Furniture
  27. Mothers-in-law

“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.”

Apt

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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.

Oops

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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.

The Steps Experiment

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.’

The Balloon-Hoax

On April 13, 1844, a curious headline appeared in the New York Sun:

ASTOUNDING NEWS!
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK:
* * * * * * *
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!
* * * * * * *
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON’S
FLYING MACHINE!!!

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.