In 2005, Chinese novelist Hu Wenliang offered 140,000 yuan ($16,900 U.S.) to the reader who could decipher his novel «?», which consists entirely of punctuation marks:
Hu claimed that the symbols represent a touching love story that took him a year to write, but he told the Beijing Daily Messenger that none of the 20 interpretations that readers had so far offered had satisfied him.
“I have my own answer, which is around 100 Chinese characters,” he said. “The interpretation should cover the description of characters and the plot of the story. I will reward someone who can guess 80 percent the hidden story correct.”
That was in July 2005. If anyone has offered a successful solution, I haven’t been able to discover it.
Jack Kerouac typed the first draft of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot scroll of paper.
Truman Capote famously dismissed it, saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
In 2008, conceptual artist Simon Morris typed it again, publishing 400 words a day as a blog.
“One would hope for some truly profound response, but really there is none,” he said. “I don’t feel anything at all.”
In 2009 experimental poet Robert Fitterman erased most of The Sun Also Rises, retaining only phrases that begin with the word I. The result can sound strangely like the diary entry of a random Saturday afternoon:
I went up to the flat. I put the mail on the table. I heard the door-bell pull. I put on a bathrobe and slippers. I filled the big earthenware jug with water. I dressed slowly. I felt tired and pretty rotten. I took up the brandy bottle. I went to the door. I found some ash-trays and spread them around. I looked at the count. I had that feeling of going through something that has already happened before. I had the feeling as in a nightmare of it all being something repeated, something I had been through and that now I must go through again. I took a note out of my pocket. I looked back and there were three girls at his table. I gave him twenty francs and he touched his cap. I went upstairs and went to bed.
Of Hemingway, Tom Wolfe said, “People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he is concise. He isn’t. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding.”
For her 1974 book Lighter Side of the Library, Janice Glover asked American librarians to recall titles requested by confused patrons, and the books they turned out to want:
Requested: Who Is Your Schoolmaster?
Book wanted: Hoosier Schoolmaster
Requested: Entombed With an Infant
Book wanted: In Tune With the Infinite
Requested: The Missing Hand
Book wanted: A Farewell to Arms
Requested: The Armored Chinaman
Book wanted: The Chink in the Armour
Requested: King of the Ants
Book wanted: Lord of the Flies
Requested: The Wooden Kid
Book wanted: Pinocchio
Requested: Five Pennies and the Sun
Book wanted: The Moon and Sixpence
And so on: From Here to Maternity; The Merchant of Venus; “Allergy in a Country Churchyard”; My Heart Is Wounded, They Buried My Knee. One inspired library staff finally sent a student home with Homer’s Iliad; he had come in asking for Homeless Idiot.
Harold came rushing out of the engine room with dishevelled hair and bulging eyes. We asked him what on earth was the matter. For an answer he pointed to a piece of rope that was caught in a part of the farthest end of a long beam, which extended far over the side of the Seairoplane. Then he said, ‘Unless that rope is gotten out of the curobater we will all be killed.’ These awful words astounded us and we all became frightened at once. Suddenly amid all of our lamentations a cry from Harold was heard and we all looked up. What was our surprise to see James Thurber walking out on the beam. He reached the end safely and then extricated the rope, but when he turned to come back his foot caught and he pitched head foremost towards the deck. His unusual length saved him for he landed safely on the Seairoplane. We were all very joyful that the terrible crisis had been safely passed and afterwards learned that James was a tightrope walker with Barnsells and Ringbaileys circus.
– From an eighth-grade “class prophecy” essay by 14-year-old James Thurber, 1909
An invisible man would have transparent retinas — and thus be blind.
UPDATE: Wells seems to have thought of this! In Chapter XX, shortly after his transformation, the Invisible Man says:
“I struggled up. At first I was as incapable as a swathed infant — stepping with limbs I could not see. I was weak and very hungry. I went and stared at nothing in my shaving-glass, at nothing save where an attenuated pigment still remained behind the retina of my eyes, fainter than mist. I had to hang on to the table and press my forehead against the glass.”
In testing his cat, he had found that “there remained two little ghosts of her eyes … the back part of the eye, tough, iridescent stuff it is, wouldn’t go at all.” (Thanks, Nathaniel.)
John Macnie’s 1883 utopian novel The Diothas describes paved roads on which cars achieve speeds of 20 miles per hour:
When we had fairly emerged into the country, the curricle, gradually increasing its speed, moved over the smooth track like a shadow, obedient to the slightest touch of its guide. Steering was effected much as in the tricycle of the present: the brakes were controlled by the feet. The forefinger, by means of a lever resembling the brake of a bicycle, regulated the amount of force allowed to issue from the reservoir.
That’s not the remarkable part, though. “‘You see the white line running along the centre of the road,’ resumed Utis. ‘The rule of the road requires that line to be kept on the left except when passing a vehicle in front. Then the line may be crossed, provided the way on that side is clear.’”
In Max Beerbohm’s 1916 short story “Enoch Soames,” an unsuccessful poet sells his soul to the devil for the chance to travel 100 years into the future to see how time has favored his work.
Under the agreement, Soames is transported to the Reading Room of the British Museum at 2:10 p.m. on June 3, 1997. He searches for references to his work but finds himself mentioned only once, as an “imaginary character” in a story by Max Beerbohm, and is whisked off to hell.
But, Beerbohm writes, “You realize that the reading-room into which Soames was projected by the devil was in all respects precisely as it will be on the afternoon of June 3, 1997. You realize, therefore, that on that afternoon, when it comes round, there the selfsame crowd will be, and there Soames will be, punctually. … The fact that people are going to stare at him and follow him around and seem afraid of him, can be explained only on the hypothesis that they will somehow have been prepared for his ghostly visitation.”
On June 3, 1997, about a dozen onlookers collected in the Reading Room of the British Museum to see what would happen. To their surprise, at precisely 2:10 p.m. a man matching Soames’ description — “a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair” — appeared and began to search catalogs and speak with the librarians. Dejected, he finally disappeared among the stacks.
Among the onlookers was Teller, of the magician duo Penn & Teller.
Books were so precious in the Middle Ages that monks invoked curses against any who might steal them:
This book belongs to S. Maximin at his monastery of Micy, which abbat Peter caused to be written, and with his own labour corrected and punctuated, and on Holy Thursday dedicated to God and S. Maximin on the altar of S. Stephen, with this imprecation that he who should take it away from thence by what device soever, with the intention of not restoring it, should incur damnation with the traitor Judas, with Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate. Amen.
Should anyone by craft or any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not be recorded among the Blessed.
This book belongs to S. Alban. May whosoever steals it from him or destroys its title be anathema. Amen.
May whoever destroys this title, or by gift or sale or loan or exchange or theft or by any other device knowingly alienates this book from the aforesaid Christ Church, incur in this life the malediction of Jesus Christ and of the most glorious Virgin His Mother, and of Blessed Thomas, Martyr. Should however it please Christ, who is patron of Christ Church, may his soul be saved in the Day of Judgment.
These are from The Care of Books, by John Willis Clark, 1901. Happily, in 1212 a council met at Paris to decree that “We forbid those who belong to a religious Order, to formulate any vow against lending their books to those who are in need of them; seeing that to lend is enumerated among the principal works of mercy. … From the present date no book is to be retained under pain of incurring a curse, and we declare all such curses to be of no effect.”
In his first field journal, John Muir listed his home address as “Earth, planet, Universe.”
In the early 1600s, Johannes Kepler wrote a fantasy in which he imagined a journey to the moon:
We congregate in force and seize a man of this sort; all together lifting him from beneath, we carry him aloft. The first getting into motion is very hard on him, for he is twisted and turned just as if, shot from a cannon, we were sailing across mountains and seas. Therefore, he must be put to sleep beforehand, with narcotics and opiates, and he must be arranged, limb by limb, so that the shock will be distributed over the individual members, lest the upper part of his body be carried away from the fundament, or his head be torn from his shoulders. Then comes a new difficulty: terrific cold and difficulty in breathing. The former we counter with our innate power, the latter by means of moistened sponges applied to the nostrils.
Somnium is largely a treatise on lunar astronomy, describing the motions of the planets as observed from the moon. But Kepler also considers the appearance of the moon’s inhabitants, who “wander in hordes over the whole globe in the space of one of their days, some on foot, whereby they far outstrip our camels, some by means of wings, some in boats pursue the fleeing waters, or if a pause of a good many days is necessary, then they creep into caves.” Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov called it the first work of science fiction.
Stuck in a book-filled house in dreary Belfast in 1906, the 8-year-old C.S. Lewis repaired to the attic with his 11-year-old brother Warren and began to fashion an imaginary world. Jack’s half was called Animal-Land, and Warnie’s was an island called India. The two, connected by steamship routes, formed a world they called Boxen, the subject of novels, textbooks, maps, and even newspapers that the two composed over the next five years:
In those days Mouse-land was called ‘Bublish’ and the mice called Bubills.
Shortly after the ‘Melee of Hacom’s Palace’ (for so it shall be called) some inhabitants of Bombay came over to buy nuts. They taught the mice many things. The most important of which was: the use of money. Before that the Mice (or Bubils as they were called) exchanged things in markets. The Indians landed in 1216.
The Indians as it has been told gave knowledge to the Bublis. But the Bublies asked for some of it. The Bublis asked the Indians how they got on without fighting each others men. The asked ones told the Bubils that they choose a man to rule them all and called him Rajah or king.
The Bubils followed that plan. But no!! ‘Out of the frying-pan into the fire.’ Poor miss led creatures. Now they fought all the more!! Why? Because each mouse wished to be king. One had as much right to the throne as an other. So every place was fighting.
Jack’s Animal-Land drew on the “dressed animals” of Beatrix Potter, but, influenced by the political table talk of their father, it set them in prosaic histories and palace intrigues rather than heroic adventures. “For readers of my children’s books, the best way of putting this would be to say that Animal-Land had nothing whatever in common with Narnia except the anthropomorphic beasts,” he wrote later. “Animal-Land, by its whole quality, excluded the least hint of wonder.”
Samuel Johnson’s 1759 novel Rasselas contains a remarkable passage — he anticipates the airplane by nearly 150 years:
He that can swim needs not despair to fly; to swim is to fly in a grosser fluid, and to fly is to swim in a subtler: We are only to proportion our power of resistance to the different density of the matter through which we are to pass: You will be necessarily upborne by the air, if you can renew any impulse upon it, faster than the air can recede from the pressure.
“As a basic claim for a modern patent, the statement could not be broader nor more comprehensive,” wrote a correspondent to U.S. Air Service in 1920. “It only required the modern high-powered internal combustion engine to render his claim effective.”
When PLAFSEP magazine asked its readers to nominate the silliest library subject heading, the hands-down winner was BUTTOCKS (IN RELIGION, FOLK-LORE, ETC.). Other highlights, gathered by columnist John R. Likins:
AMERICAN GIANT CHECKERED RABBIT
CATASTROPHICAL, THE, see also COMIC, THE
CHILD ABUSE–STUDY AND TEACHING
CONTANGO AND BACKWARDATION
DENTISTS IN ART
FANTASTIC TELEVISION PROGRAMS
GOD–ADDRESSES, ESSAYS, LECTURES
JESUS CHRIST–PERSON AND OFFICES
ODORS IN THE BIBLE
PRAYERS FOR ANIMALS
URINARY DIVERSIONS, see also URINE DANCE
That’s from Likins’ article “Subject Headings, Silly, American–20th Century–Complications and Sequelae–Addresses, Essays, Lectures,” in Technical Services Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1/2, Fall/Winter 1984, using data from the Library of Congress and Cataloging in Publication. In The Library at Night (2006), Alberto Manguel gives these:
Boots and shoes in art
Chickens in religion and folklore
Sewage: collected works
Sex: cause and determination
Tic: see also toc
And the Whole Library Handbook (1991) offers these, collected by the Library of Congress Professional Association:
Beehives; see Bee–Housing
Diving for men
Drug abuse — Programmed instruction
Feet in the Bible
Hand — Surgery — Juvenile literature
Lord’s Supper — Reservation
Low German wit and humor
Running races in rabbinical literature
Standing on one foot; see One-leg resting position
Stupidity; see Inefficiency, Intellectual
I think some of these may now be out of date, but there’s certainly no shortage of curious headings — in doing research for this site I recently ran across “Raccoon — Biography.”
“If scientific theories are correct it is more of an honor to lose at chess than win,” mused Edgar Rice Burroughs in his diary on Jan. 3, 1921. “I do not recall ever having lost a chess game — though I have played but few times.”
Perhaps inspired, he invented a Martian variant of the game, Jetan, for his novel The Chessmen of Mars, published the following spring. Played with alien pieces on a 10×10 board, the game underlies a climactic scene in which living players fight to the death on an oversize board.
A few months after the novel’s appearance, Burroughs received a letter from Elston B. Sweet, a convict at Leavenworth, who with a fellow prisoner had carved a full set of pieces for Jetan. “We have not only played dozens of games between us,” he wrote, “but have succeeded in making the game a favorite among several other prisoners.” When other readers expressed similar interest, Burroughs summarized the rules of the game in an appendix to the novel.
In a 1968 collection of chess variations, John Gollon praises Jetan as “quite good — very playable and entertaining.” He includes this sample game between himself (orange) and J. Miller (black):
1. (T) A2-B4 (T)A9-B7
2. (W) A1-A3 (W) A10-A8
3. (Pd) B1-B3 (Pd) B10-B8
4. (Pa) C2-D3 (Pa) C9-D8
5. (D) C1-C4 (D) C10-C7
6. (O) G1-D4 (O) G10-D7
7. (D) C4-C7X (D) (Pa)D8-C7X (D)
8. (Pa) B3-D5 (O) D7-G8
9. (Pa) D5-B7X (T) (Pa) C7-B7X (Pd)
10. (O) D4-G5 (Pa) F7-F8
11. (Pa) H2-G3 (Pa) H9-I8
12. (D) H1-H4 (D) H10-H7
13. (Pd) I1-I3 (Pa) I7-J8
14. (T) J2-I4 (C) F10-F7
15. (D) H4-H7X (D) (Pa) I8-H7X (D)
16. (Pa) E2-E3 (O) D10-G7
17. (Pd) I3-I5 (O) G7-D6
18. (O) D1-E4 (O) D6-G5X (O)
19. (T) I4-G5X (O) (C) F7-I5X (Pd)
20. (Pa) G3-G4 (C) I5-I2X (Pa)
21. (P) F1-C1 (C) I2-J1X (W)
22. (T) G5-H7X (Pa) (O) G8-H7X (T)
23. (O) E4-H7X (O) (P) E10-C9
24. (O) H7-I10X (Pd) (T) I9-I7
25. (C) E1-E4 (W) J10-I9
26. (C) E4-D7 (P) C9-F1
27. (C) D7-F4
“Black’s Princess ‘escaped’ into certain capture — no matter where she moves, she will be taken.”
In October 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife woke him out of a troubled sleep, and he cried, “O, why did you wake me? I was dreaming such a fine bogey tale.”
“One man was being pressed into a cabinet, when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being,” he told an interviewer later. “I awoke and said at once that I had found the missing link for which I had been looking so long, and before I again went to sleep, almost every detail of the story, as it stands, was clear to me.”
He wrote out the tale in three days and presented it to his wife, who said he had overlooked the allegory at the heart of the idea. He grew angry, paced his room, and reappeared. “You are right,” he said. “I have absolutely missed the allegory, which after all is the whole point of it.” He threw the manuscript into the fire and spent another three days rewriting it. In all he wrote 64,000 words in six days.
As he crossed to the United States in September 1887, he had an early intimation of the book’s fame: The ill-tempered pilot of his boat had been nicknamed Hyde, and his better-natured partner was called Jekyll.
DR. GALL: You see, so many Robots are being manufactured that people are becoming superfluous; man is really a survival. But that he should begin to die out, after a paltry thirty years of competition! That’s the awful part of it. You might think that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots. All the universities are sending in long petitions to restrict their production. Otherwise, they say, mankind will become extinct through lack of fertility. But the R.U.R. shareholders, of course, won’t hear of it. All the governments, on the other hand, are clamoring for an increase in production, to raise the standards of their armies. And all the manufacturers in the world are ordering Robots like mad.
HELENA: And has no one demanded that the manufacture should cease altogether?
DR. GALL: No one has the courage.
DR. GALL: People would stone him to death. You see, after all, it’s more convenient to get your work done by the Robots.
HELENA: Oh, Doctor, what’s going to become of people?
DR. GALL: God knows, Madame Helena, it looks to us scientists like the end!
– From Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot
Most mutilated journals in the library of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, September 1982-May 1983:
- Personnel Psychology
- Journal of Conflict Resolution
- Journal of Politics
- Education and Urban Society
- ASCE Journal of Hydraulics
- Journal of Humanistic Philosophy
- Journal of Marriage and the Family
- Journal of Experimental Psychology
(“Saving and Securing Library Materials,” American Libraries, November 1983, p. 651.)
In 1916, New York Sun columnist Don Marquis told his readers an unlikely story: He had arrived early at work to discover a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys of his typewriter.
“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Marquis wrote. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another.” The result was poetry:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life …
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay
In the years that followed, the sensitive cockroach helped Marquis fill hundreds of pages with wry and sometimes trenchant social commentary:
as i was crawling
through the holes in
a swiss cheese
day it occurred to
me to wonder
what a swiss cheese
would think if
a swiss cheese
could think and after
cogitating for some
time i said to myself
if a swiss cheese
it would think that
a swiss cheese
was the most important
thing in the world
just as everything that
can think at all
does think about itself
a good many
failures are happy
because they dont
realize it many a
himself as beautiful
as a butterfly
have a heart o have
a heart and
let them dream on
It’s not clear what inspired Marquis to create such an unlikely pair of characters, but his friend Christopher Morley offered one idea. “I remember that in the early days of the ‘Sun Dial,’ when the paper moved from Park Row to Nassau Street, Don’s typewriter desk got lost in the skirmish; so for some years he rattled out his daily stint with his machine perched on an up-ended packing case. This box had stenciled on it the statement 1 GROSS TOM CAT, which meant Tomato Catsup, but became by legend the first suggestion of mehitabel.”
In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.
Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:
Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.
Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.
William Bliss’ 1949 book The Real Shakespeare concludes with a “Shakespeare examination paper for reasonably advanced students.” It includes this question:
5. What character (and in what play) has the shortest part; appears only once (and that in a stage direction); and says nothing — and yet is essential to the plot?
I thought this might make a good puzzle — but I don’t know the answer! Bliss withholds his, and despite a lot of fumbling research I can’t find a significant player in Shakespeare who says nothing at all. Maybe the bear in The Winter’s Tale? I’ll leave it here as an open-ended riddle.
UPDATE: In the messages I’ve received, the most popular candidate is Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth. Banquo appears alive and speaks early in the play, but Macbeth has him murdered in Act III and his ghost haunts Macbeth silently thereafter, plaguing his conscience. In the stage directions, the ghost is called “Ghost of Banquo,” so arguably this is a distinct character.
09/13/2013 Another possibility: the corpse of Henry VI in Richard III. He appears once, carried in a coffin while Richard woos the mourning Lady Anne; he certainly says nothing; and his death and the victory of the Yorkists set off the events of the play. (Thanks, Josh.)
Finally, consider what delightful teaching there is in books. How easily, how secretly, how safely in books do we make bare without shame the poverty of human ignorance! These are the masters that instruct us without rod and ferrule, without words of anger, without payment of money or clothing. Should ye approach them, they are not asleep; if ye seek to question them, they do not hide themselves; should ye err, they do not chide; and should ye show ignorance, they know not how to laugh. O Books! ye alone are free and liberal. Ye give to all that seek, and set free all that serve you zealously. By what thousands of things are ye figuratively recommended to learned men in the Scripture given us by Divine inspiration!
– Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, 1344
“People think I can teach them style. What stuff it all is! Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” — Matthew Arnold
Letter from Charles Dickens to a chimney sweep, March 15, 1864:
Since you last swept my study chimney it has developed some peculiar eccentricities. Smoke has indeed proceeded from the cowl that surmounts it, but it has seemingly been undergoing internal agonies of a most distressing nature, and pours forth disastrous volumes of swarthy vapour into the apartment wherein I habitually labour. Although a comforting relief probably to the chimney, this is not altogether convenient to me. If you can send a confidential sub-sweep, with whom the chimney can engage in social intercourse, it might be induced to disclose the cause of the departure from its normal functions.