Most stories are told in the past tense. “It was a dark and stormy night.” In reading the story we understand that the storm is happening “now,” in the present, but the language that communicates this to us places it in the past.
This is a strange way of managing things. Imagine reading a novel using a bookmark. Everything to the left of the bookmark is in the past, already known. Everything to the right is in the future, not yet known. Our current location, at the bookmark, is someone else’s present narrated in the past tense. And this implies that there’s some future present in relation to which “current” events are past.
“If the past is to be read as present, it is a curious present that we know to be past in relation to a future we know to be already in place, already in wait for us to reach it,” writes Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (1984). “Perhaps we would do best to speak of the anticipation of retrospection as our chief tool in making sense of narrative, the master trope of its strange logic.”
(From Mark Currie, About Time, 2007.)
We had a dark grey cat (Norfolk bred, very Norfolk in character) called Tom. He was reserved, domineering, voluptuous — much as I imagine Tiber to be. When he was middle-aged he gave up nocturnal prowlings and slept on my bed, against my feet. One evening I was reading in bed when I became aware that Tom was staring at me. I put down my book, said nothing, watched. Slowly, with a look of intense concentration, he got up and advanced on me, like Tarquin with ravishing strides, poised himself, put out a front paw, and stroked my cheek as I used to stroke his chops. A human caress from a cat. I felt very meagre and ill-educated that I could not purr. It had never occurred to me that their furry love develops from what was shown them as kittens.
— Sylvia Townsend Warner, letter to David Garnett, June 18, 1973, quoted in The Oxford Book of Friendship
Letter from Lewis Carroll to Gertrude Chataway, Dec. 9, 1875:
This really will not do, you know, sending one more kiss every time by post: the parcel gets so heavy it is quite expensive. When the postman brought in the last letter, he looked quite grave. ‘Two pounds to pay, sir!’ he said. ‘Extra weight, sir!’ (I think he cheats a little, by the way. He often makes me pay two pounds, when I think it should be pence). ‘Oh, if you please, Mr. Postman!’ I said, going down gracefully on one knee (I wish you could see me go down on one knee to a postman — it’s a very pretty sight), ‘do excuse me just this once! It’s only from a little girl!’
‘Only from a little girl!’ he growled. ‘What are little girls made of?’ ‘Sugar and spice,’ I began to say, ‘and all that’s ni–‘ but he interrupted me. ‘No! I don’t mean that. I mean, what’s the good of little girls, when they send such heavy letters?’ ‘Well, they’re not much good, certainly,’ I said, rather sadly.
‘Mind you don’t get any more such letters,’ he said, ‘at least, not from that particular little girl. I know her well, and she’s a regular bad one!’ That’s not true, is it? I don’t believe he ever saw you, and you’re not a bad one, are you? However, I promised him we would send each other very few more letters — ‘Only two thousand four hundred and seventy, or so,’ I said. ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘a little number like that doesn’t signify. What I meant is, you mustn’t send many.’
So you see we must keep count now, and when we get to two thousand four hundred and seventy, we mustn’t write any more, unless the postman gives us leave.
- Denver International Airport is larger than Manhattan.
- C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy died on the same day.
- Shakespeare mentions America only once, in Act 3, Scene 2 of The Comedy of Errors.
- π4 + π5 ≈ e6
- “All styles are good except the boring kind.” — Voltaire
n. a description of the sea
Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield climaxes with a dramatic tempest at Yarmouth:
The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.
Tolstoy wrote, “If you sift the world’s prose literature, Dickens will remain; sift Dickens, David Copperfield will remain; sift David Copperfield, the description of the storm at sea will remain.” The scene formed the conclusion of Dickens’ public readings from the novel, and was often hailed as the grandest moment in his performances. Thackeray’s daughter Annie said the storm scene was more thrilling than anything she had ever seen in a theater: “It was not acting, it was not music, nor harmony of sound and color, and yet I still have an impression of all these things as I think of that occasion.”
Index entries in Thomas De Quincey’s Collected Writings, 1896:
Aldermen not necessarily gluttons
Anecdotes, on eating peas with a knife
Bed, early retirement to, of the Ancients
Christenings, Royal, often hurried
Coffee, atrocious in England
Cookery, English, the rudest of barbarous devices
Devonshire men good-looking
Fleas in Greece
Greece, Ancient, its people a nation of swindlers
Johnson, Dr, at dinner, an indecent spectacle
Leibnitz, died partly from the fear of not being murdered
Lisbon earthquake and its effect on the religion of Germany
Muffins, eating, a cause of suicide
Music, English obtuseness to good
Pig-grunting, mimicry of
Rhinoceros, first sale of a
Servants, England the paradise of household
Solon, what did he do for Homer?
Spitting, art of
Talk, too much in the world
Toothache, that terrific curse
Waterton’s adventure with a crocodile
Women, can die grandly
“If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination,” he wrote in Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts. “Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time.”
Letter from Lewis Carroll to Winifred Stevens, May 22, 1887:
My dear Winnie,
But you will be getting tired of this long letter: so I will bring it to an end, and sign myself,
“I make a list of titles after I’ve finished the story or the book — sometimes as many as a hundred. Then I start eliminating them, sometimes all of them.” — Ernest Hemingway
“The title comes afterwards, usually with considerable difficulty. … A working title often changes.” — Heinrich Böll
“I have never been a title man. I don’t give a damn what it is called. I would call it [East of Eden] Valley to the Sea, which is a quotation from absolutely nothing but has two great words and a direction.” — John Steinbeck
“Titles as a rule do not matter much. Very good authors break down when it comes to the effort of choosing a title.” — D.H. Lawrence
“When I need a title I’ll usually reread the poetry of Hart Crane. I take a copy of Crane’s work with me when I travel. A phrase will catch my eye and seem right for what I’m writing. But there’s no system to it.” — Tennessee Williams
“I have a peculiar idea about titles. They should never be obviously provocative, nor say anything about murder. They should be rather indirect and neutral, but the form of words should be a little unusual. … As to publishers, I wonder if they know anything about titles.” — Raymond Chandler
In 1959, as he prepared the seventh edition of his Textbook of Pediatrics, Waldo E. Nelson enlisted his family to help compile the index. Nelson would call out items from each page and his wife and three children would write them down on index cards.
Only after the book appeared did he notice this entry:
Birds, for the, 1-1413
It was removed in the next edition. The culprit, Nelson’s daughter Ann, later married pediatrician Richard E. Behrman — after he promised never to ask her to help him write a textbook.
n. the act of loving in return
Zelda to Scott Fitzgerald, spring 1919 or 1920:
I look down the tracks and see you coming – and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me – Without you, dearest dearest I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think – or live – I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you. I want to kiss you so – and in the back where your dear hair starts and your chest – I love you – and I can’t tell you how much – To think that I’ll die without your knowing – Goofo, you’ve got to try to feel how much I do – how inanimate I am when you’re gone – I can’t even hate these damnable people – Nobodys got any right to live but us – and they’re dirtying up our world and I can’t hate them because I want you so – Come Quick – Come Quick to me – I could never do without you if you hated me and were covered with sores like a leper – if you ran away with another woman and starved me and beat me – I still would want you I know –
Lover, Lover, Darling –
“In all the proof that has reached me, windrow has been spelled window. If, in the bound book, windrow still appears as window, then neither rain nor hail nor gloom of night nor fleets of riot squads will prevent me from assassinating the man who is responsible. If the coward hides behind my finding, I shall step into Scribner’s and merely shoot up the place Southern style.” — American author Gordon Dorrance (1890-1957), note to his publishers
“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss-waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will remain split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.” — Raymond Chandler, to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly
A publisher once took the liberty of editing an introduction that Mark Twain had contributed to a book on Joan of Arc. Twain returned a commentary on the edits. Some highlights:
- First line. What is the trouble with “at the”? And why “Trial?” Has some uninstructed person deceived you into the notion that there was but one, instead of half a dozen?
- Amongst. Wasn’t “among” good enough? …
- Second Paragraph. Now you have begun on my punctuation. Don’t you realize that you ought not to intrude your help in a delicate art like that, with your limitations? And do you think you have added just the right smear of polish to the closing clause of the sentence?
- Second Paragraph. How do you know it was his “own” sword? It could have been a borrowed one, I am cautious in matters of history, and you should not put statements in my mouth for which you cannot produce vouchers. Your other corrections are rubbish. …
- Fifth Paragraph. Thus far, I regard this as your masterpiece! You are really perfect in the great art of reducing simple and dignified speech to clumsy and vapid commonplace.
- Sixth Paragraph. You have a singularly fine and aristocratic disrespect for homely and unpretending English. Every time I use “go back” you get out your polisher and slick it up to “return.” “Return” is suited only to the drawing-room — it is ducal, and says itself with a simper and a smirk. …
- II. In Captivity. “Remainder.” It is curious and interesting to notice what an attraction a fussy, mincing, nickel-plated artificial word has for you. This is not well.
- Third Sentence. But she was held to ransom; it wasn’t a case of “should have been” and it wasn’t a case of “if it had been offered”; it was offered, and also accepted, as the second paragraph shows. You ought never to edit except when awake. …
- Third Paragraph. … “Break another lance” is a knightly and sumptuous phrase, and I honor it for its hoary age and for the faithful service it has done in the prize-composition of the schoolgirl, but I have ceased from employing it since I got my puberty, and must solemnly object to fathering it here. And besides, it makes me hint that I have broken one of those things before, in honor of the Maid, an intimation not justified by the facts. I did not break any lances or other furniture, I only wrote a book about her.
The full list is in his autobiography. “It cost me something to restrain myself and say these smooth and half-flattering things to this immeasurable idiot,” Twain wrote, “but I did it and have never regretted it. For it is higher and nobler to be kind to even a shad like him than just. If we should deal out justice only, in this world, who would escape?”
Letter from Lewis Carroll to Adelaide Paine, March 8, 1880:
My dear Ada, — (Isn’t that your short name? ‘Adelaide’ is all very well, but you see when one’s dreadfully busy one hasn’t time to write such long words — particularly when it takes one half an hour to remember how to spell it — and even then one has to go and get a dictionary to see if one has spelt it right, and of course the dictionary is in another room, at the top of a high bookcase — where it has been for months and months, and has got all covered with dust — so one has to get a duster first of all, and nearly choke oneself in dusting it — and when one has made out at last which is dictionary and which is dust, even then there’s the job of remembering which end of the alphabet ‘A’ comes — for one feels pretty certain it isn’t in the middle — then one has to go and wash one’s hands before turning over the leaves — for they’ve got so thick with dust one hardly knows them by sight — and, as likely as not, the soap is lost, and the jug is empty, and there’s no towel, and one has to spend hours and hours in finding things — and perhaps after all one has to go off to the shop to buy a new cake of soap — so, with all this bother, I hope you won’t mind my writing it short and saying, ‘My dear Ada’).
You said in your last letter that you would like a likeness of me; so here it is, and I hope you will like it. I won’t forget to call the next time but one I’m in Wallington.
Your very affectionate friend,
No one knows who devised the cross-references in William Hawkins’ 1795 Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, but he was either very wry or very cynical:
Cattle see Clergy.
Chastity see Homicide.
Coin see High Treason.
Convicts see Clergy.
Death see Appeal.
Election see Bribery.
Fear see Robbery.
Footway see Nuisance.
Honour see Constable.
Incapacity see Officers.
King see Treason.
Knaves see Words.
Letters see Libel.
London see Outlawry.
Shop see Burglary.
Threats see Words.
Westminster Hall see Contempt and Lie.
“A plain, unlettered man is led to suspect that the writer of the volume and the writer of the index are playing at cross purposes,” noted the Monthly Magazine. Perhaps they were.
Winston Churchill said that playing golf was “like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture.”
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening — any evening — would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
— C.S. Lewis
In 1910, unable to get his one-act play “The First Poet” published, George Sterling prevailed on his friend Jack London to publish it under his own name. London resisted, pointing out that Sterling had already shown the play to Herbert Heron and Mike Williams, who would recognize it. He wrote:
“Your showing ‘The First Poet’ to Heron and Williams, and then coming on and asking me to father it, is equivalent to exposing your penis to a couple of 90¢ alarm clocks, and then trying to rape a quail. I’m the quail. And if I let you rape me, both alarm clocks would immediately go off and tell the news to the world.”
Eventually he relented, and “The First Poet” appeared in the Century Magazine in June 1911 under London’s name. The fact of Sterling’s authorship came to light only later.
The Epworth Instigator, a monthly publication in Santa Monica, edited by Saml. Carlisle, has probably the smallest sworn circulation statement of any paper in the United States. According to the sworn statement, Forrest Harris, the business manager, says that the number of copies printed and circulated for the month of August, 1907, was one.
The paper is published in the interests of the Epworth league here, and the only copy is taken to the meeting and read aloud, advertisements and all.
— Printers’ Ink, Oct. 16, 1907
Anthony Trollope established himself as one of the world’s most prolific novelists while holding down a 30-year career as a full-time civil servant.
He did this by simply demanding it of himself. Even while traveling he rose at 5:30 each morning and worked for three hours, “allowing himself no mercy,” counting words as he went and noting his progress on a chart, “so that if at any time I have slipped into idleness for a day or two, the record of that idleness has been there, staring me in the face, and demanding of me increased labour, so that the efficiency might be supplied.” He disdained inspiration: “To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.”
“All those I think who have lived as literary men — working daily as literary labourers — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write,” he wrote in his autobiography. “But then he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours — so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time become my custom … to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.”
His brother Tom said, “Work to him was a necessity and a satisfaction. He used often to say he envied me the capacity for being idle.”
The goal of the Shakespeare programming language is to create code that reads like a Shakespearean play: Variables are “characters” that interact through dialogue, constants are represented by nouns and adjectives, and if/then statements are phrased as questions. (Insulting Macbeth assigns him a negative value.) Act and scene numbers serve as GOTO labels, and characters can tell one another to “remember” or “recall” values. The phrases “Open your heart” and “Speak your mind” output a variable’s numerical value and the corresponding ASCII character, respectively.
This program prints the phrase HELLO WORLD:
Romeo, a young man with a remarkable patience. Juliet, a likewise young woman of remarkable grace. Ophelia, a remarkable woman much in dispute with Hamlet. Hamlet, the flatterer of Andersen Insulting A/S. Act I: Hamlet's insults and flattery. Scene I: The insulting of Romeo. [Enter Hamlet and Romeo] Hamlet: You lying stupid fatherless big smelly half-witted coward! You are as stupid as the difference between a handsome rich brave hero and thyself! Speak your mind! You are as brave as the sum of your fat little stuffed misused dusty old rotten codpiece and a beautiful fair warm peaceful sunny summer's day. You are as healthy as the difference between the sum of the sweetest reddest rose and my father and yourself! Speak your mind! You are as cowardly as the sum of yourself and the difference between a big mighty proud kingdom and a horse. Speak your mind. Speak your mind! [Exit Romeo] Scene II: The praising of Juliet. [Enter Juliet] Hamlet: Thou art as sweet as the sum of the sum of Romeo and his horse and his black cat! Speak thy mind! [Exit Juliet] Scene III: The praising of Ophelia. [Enter Ophelia] Hamlet: Thou art as lovely as the product of a large rural town and my amazing bottomless embroidered purse. Speak thy mind! Thou art as loving as the product of the bluest clearest sweetest sky and the sum of a squirrel and a white horse. Thou art as beautiful as the difference between Juliet and thyself. Speak thy mind! [Exeunt Ophelia and Hamlet] Act II: Behind Hamlet's back. Scene I: Romeo and Juliet's conversation. [Enter Romeo and Juliet] Romeo: Speak your mind. You are as worried as the sum of yourself and the difference between my small smooth hamster and my nose. Speak your mind! Juliet: Speak YOUR mind! You are as bad as Hamlet! You are as small as the difference between the square of the difference between my little pony and your big hairy hound and the cube of your sorry little codpiece. Speak your mind! [Exit Romeo] Scene II: Juliet and Ophelia's conversation. [Enter Ophelia] Juliet: Thou art as good as the quotient between Romeo and the sum of a small furry animal and a leech. Speak your mind! Ophelia: Thou art as disgusting as the quotient between Romeo and twice the difference between a mistletoe and an oozing infected blister! Speak your mind! [Exeunt]
Because it’s written as a play, a program can be performed by human actors, but the drama lacks a certain narrative drive:
B.S. Johnson’s 1969 “book in a box” The Unfortunates consists of 27 unbound sections, ranging in length from a single paragraph to 12 pages. The first and last chapters are specified, but the 25 in between can be read in any order. Johnson felt this was a “better solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness than the imposed order of a bound book.”
Jerzy Andrzejewski’s 40,000-word novel The Gates of Paradise, published in 1960, consists of only two sentences. The second is “And they marched all night.”
When Edgar Wallace published his detective thriller The Four Just Men in 1905, he challenged readers of the Daily Mail to guess the murder method, offering first, second, and third prizes of £250, £200, and £50. Unfortunately he failed to specify that each prize would go to a single entrant, so he was legally obliged to award a prize to every correct entry. He went bankrupt, and the newspaper had to pay more than £5,000 to protect its reputation.
Shortly after his travel book Alexandria appeared in December 1922, E.M. Forster received a regretful letter from the publisher, Whitehead Morris & Co. There had been a fire in the warehouse and the entire edition had been burned. Fortunately, it had been insured, and they enclosed a substantial check in compensation.
“A few weeks later Forster received a yet more regretful letter from the publishers,” notes editor Lawrence Durrell in the book’s 1961 edition. “The books had been found intact, in a cellar which had escaped the flames. This, in view of the insurance money, his publishers wrote, had created a most awkward situation, and they had taken the only way out: they burnt the books deliberately.”
Index entries in Hilaire Belloc’s The Aftermath: Or, Gleanings From a Busy Life, 1903:
Abingdon, History of, by Lord Charles Gamber, see Pulping, p. 187.
Advertisement, Folly and Waste of, see Pulping, p. 187.
All Souls, College of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Cabs, Necessity of, to Modern Publisher, see Pulping, p. 187.
Cabs to Authors, Unwarrantable Luxury, see Pulping, p. 187.
Call, Divine, to a Literary Career, see Pulping, p. 187.
Dogs, Reputation Going to the, see Pulping, p. 187.
England, Source and Wealth of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Fame, see Pulping, p. 187.
Genius, Indestructibility of, see Pulping, p. 187.
India, Lord Curzon’s Views on, see Pulping, p. 187.
Jesuits, Their Reply to “Huguenot,” see Pulping, p. 187.
“Mamma,” “Darling Old,” Story for Children, by the Countess of K——, see Pulping, p. 187.
Name, Real, of “Diplomaticus,” see Pulping, p. 187.
Rhodes, Cecil, Numerous Lives of, see Pulping, p. 187.
Suzanna and the Elders, Sacred Poem, see Pulping, p. 187.
Uganda Railway, Balance-sheet of, see Pulping, p. 187.
So runs the whole thing, right up to the summary “W.X.Y.Z., see Pulping, p. 187″ at the end.
There’s also an entry for “Pulping, p. 187.”
You are quite correct in saying it is a long time since you have heard from me: in fact, I find that I have not written to you since the 13th of last November. But what of that? You have access to the daily papers. Surely you can find out negatively, that I am all right! Go carefully through the list of bankruptcies; then run your eye down the police cases; and, if you fail to find my name anywhere, you can say to your mother in a tone of calm satisfaction, ‘Mr. Dodgson is going on well.’
— Lewis Carroll to Edith Blakemore, Jan. 1, 1895
Scottish writer Alasdair Gray is a practical joker. As his collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly was going to press in 1984, he called publisher Stephanie Wolfe Murray and said, “I want to have an erratum slip inserted.”
She said, “Oh God! What’s wrong? Surely we corrected everything. What do you want to say on it?”
He said, “I want it to say: THIS ERRATUM SLIP HAS BEEN INSERTED BY MISTAKE.”
“Of course we said yes immediately,” remembered Wolfe Murray, “but it was a hell of a nuisance, having to get it inserted into every single book, and expensive probably, but well worth it. All of us thought so.”
During Arthur Conan Doyle’s first tour of the United States, in 1894, he encountered a cabbie in Boston who declined his fare and asked instead for a ticket to that evening’s lecture. Surprised, Doyle asked how he had recognized him. The cabbie replied:
“If you will excuse other personal remarks, your coat lapels are badly twisted downward, where they have been grasped by the pertinacious New York reporters. Your hair has the Quakerish cut of a Philadelphia barber, and your hat, battered at the brim in front, shows where you have tightly grasped it, in the struggle to stand your ground at a Chicago literary luncheon. Your right overshoe has a large block of Buffalo mud just under the instep, the odor of a Utica cigar hangs about your clothing, and the overcoat itself shows the slovenly brushing of the porters of the through sleepers from Albany. The crumbs of doughnut on the top of your bag could only have come there in Springfield … and stenciled upon the very end of your walking stick, in fairly plain lettering, is the name Conan Doyle.”
After a performance of his play The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter received a note from an audience member:
Can you tell me the meaning of your play? There are three points I do not understand.
i. Who are the two men?
ii. Where did Stanley come from?
iii. Were they all supposed to be normal?
You will appreciate that without the answers to my questions I cannot understand your play.
He wrote back:
I would be obliged if you could explain to me the meaning of your letter. There are three points which I do not understand.
i. Who are you?
ii. Where do you come from?
iii. Are you supposed to be normal?
You will appreciate that without the answers to these questions I cannot fully understand your letter.