“It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible.” — George Bernard Shaw

“People think that because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.” — Anthony Powell

“I write fiction and I’m told it’s autobiography, I write autobiography and I’m told it’s fiction, so since I’m so dim and they’re so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn’t.” — Philip Roth


Robert Barker and Martin Lucas overlooked a crucial not in their Bible published in 1631. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes, “The fine of £300 helped to ruin the printer.” Further Bible errata:

  • In Myles Coverdale’s 1535 Bible, Psalm 91:5 read “Thou shall not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (rather than terror).
  • The “Cannibal Bible,” printed at Amsterdam in 1682, included the sentence “If the latter husband ate her [for hate her], her former husband may not take her again” (Deuteronomy 24:3).
  • In the “Camel’s Bible” of 1823, Genesis 24:61 reads “And Rebekah arose, and her camels [for damsels].”
  • In an edition published in Charles I’s reign, Psalm 14:1 read “The fool hath said in his heart there is a God.” The printers were fined £3,000, and all copies were suppressed.
  • The “Lions Bible” of 1804 contains the phrase “but thy son that shall come forth out of thy lions [for loins]” (Kings 8:19). In Galatians 5:17 it reads “For the flesh lusteth after the Spirit [for against the Spirit].”
  • In the second edition of the Geneva Bible, 1562, Matthew 5:9 reads “Blessed are the placemakers [peacemakers]: for they shall be called the children of God.” (Also, the chapter heading for Luke 21 has “Christ condemneth the poor widow” rather than “commendeth.”)
  • A 1702 edition has David complain that “printers [princes] have persecuted me without a cause.” (Psalm 119:161)
  • In a 1716 Bible first printed in Ireland, John 5:14 read “sin on more” rather than “sin no more.” “The mistake was undiscovered until 8,000 copies had been printed and bound.”
  • The “Affinity Bible” of 1923 contains a table of affinity with the error “A man may not marry his grandmother’s wife.”
  • In the “Standing Fishes Bible” of 1806, Ezekiel 47:10 reads “And it shall come to pass that the fishes [fishers] shall stand upon it.”
  • A Cambridge printing of 1653 reads “know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God?” instead of “shall not inherit.” (I Corinthians 6:9)
  • In the “Wife-Beater’s Bible” of 1549, Edmund Becke inserted a footnote to I Peter 3:7 reading “And if she be not obediente and healpeful unto hym, endevoureth to beate the fere of God into her heade, that thereby she may be compelled to learne her dutye and do it.”

In one edition published in 1944, a broken bit of type in I Peter 3:5 caused own to appear as owl, producing the alarming sentence “For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their owl husbands.”

The High Road

Editorial guidelines from Spicy Detective magazine, 1935:

  1. In describing breasts of a female character, avoid anatomical descriptions.
  2. If it is necessary for the story to have the girl give herself to a man, or be taken by him, do not go too carefully into details. …
  3. Whenever possible, avoid complete nudity of the female characters. You can have a girl strip to her underwear or transparent negligee or nightgown, or the thin torn shred of her garments, but while the girl is alive and in contact with a man, we do not want complete nudity.
  4. A nude female corpse is allowable, of course.
  5. Also a girl undressing in the privacy of her own room, but when men are in the action try to keep at least a shred of something on the girls.
  6. Do not have men in underwear in scenes with women, and no nude men at all.

“The idea is to have a very strong sex element in these stories without anything that might be intrepreted as being vulgar or obscene.”

(From Nicholas Parsons, The Book of Literary Lists, 1987.)

Podcast Episode 51: Poet Doppelgängers

In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers — at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere. We’ll also share our readers’ research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport.

Sources for our feature on poet doppelgängers:

John Oxenford, trans., The Autobiography of Wolfgang von Goethe, 1969.

G. Wilson Knight, Byron and Shakespeare, 2002.

Julian Marshall, The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1889.

Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen, 2013.

W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947.

The stories are recounted in the corresponding posts on Futility Closet: Goethe, Byron, Shelley, Owen, Powys.

Listener mail:

Little House of Cats has a photo of Cervino, the (purported) Matterhorn-scaling kitty cat of 1950.

The Daily Mail has photos of Millie, Utah mountaineer Craig Armstrong’s rock-climbing cat. More at Back Country.

Further data on cat rambles:

BBC News, “Secret Life of the Cat: What Do Our Feline Companions Get Up To?”, June 12, 2013 (accessed March 26, 2015).

National Geographic, “Watch: How Far Do Your Cats Roam?”, Aug. 8, 2014 (accessed March 26, 2015).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzles are from Kyle Hendrickson’s 1998 book Mental Fitness Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at And you can finally follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for listening!

New Tropes for Old

In an 1810 satire, C.L. Pitt noted that “a novel may be made out of a romance, or a romance out of a novel with the greatest ease, by scratching out a few terms, and inserting others.” The steps below will, “like machinery in factories,” convert a Gothic romance into a sentimental novel:

Where you find:              Put:

A castle                     An house
A cavern                     A bower
A groan                      A sigh
A giant                      A father
A bloodstained dagger        A fan
Howling blasts               Zephyrs
A knight                     A gentleman without whiskers
A lady who is the heroine    Need not be changed, being versatile
Assassins                    Telling glances
A monk                       An old steward
Skeletons, skulls, etc.      Compliments, sentiments etc.
A gliding ghost              A usurer, or an attorney
A witch                      An old housekeeper
A wound                      A kiss
A midnight murder            A marriage

“The same table of course answers for transmuting a novel into a romance.”

(From a footnote in Pitt’s The Age: A Poem, Moral, Political, and Metaphysical, With Illustrative Annotations, 1810.)

Wish List

I may as well just tell you a few of the things I like, and then, whenever you want to give me a birthday present (my birthday comes once every seven years, on the fifth Tuesday in April) you will know what to give me. Well, I like, very much indeed, a little mustard with a bit of beef spread thinly under it; and I like brown sugar — only it should have some apple pudding mixed with it to keep it from being too sweet; but perhaps what I like best of all is salt, with some soup poured over it. The use of the soup is to hinder the salt from being too dry; and it helps to melt it. Then there are other things I like; for instance, pins — only they should always have a cushion put round them to keep them warm. And I like two or three handfuls of hair; only they should always have a little girl’s head beneath them to grow on, or else whenever you open the door they get blown all over the room, and then they get lost, you know.

— Lewis Carroll, letter to Jessie Sinclair, Jan. 22, 1878

Human Relations;_twenty_portraits_of_writers._Engraving_by_J.W._Cook,_Wellcome_V0006823.jpg

Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:

  • To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
  • Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
  • When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
  • When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
  • In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
  • When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
  • Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
  • Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.

Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”

Critical Sensitivity

Alexander Woollcott set a world record for the shortest review of a Broadway play.

The play was titled Wham!

Woollcott’s review, in full, read “Ouch!”


Nominations are currently open for the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. This year’s candidates:

  • Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen
  • Advanced Pavement Research, edited by Bo Tian
  • The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing-Loh
  • Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson
  • Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the People That Used to Love Them, by Diana Rajchel
  • The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home, by Melissa Margaret Schneider
  • Strangers Have the Best Candy, by Margaret Meps Schulte

Recent winners have included How to Poo on a Date, by Mats & Enzo (2013), Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley (2012), Cooking With Poo, by Saiyuud Diwong (2011), Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way, by Michael R. Young (2010), and Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina (2009).

You can vote here. “This is one of strongest years I have seen in more than three decades of administering the prize, which highlights the crème de la crème of unintentionally nonsensical, absurd and downright head-scratching titles,” said The Bookseller‘s Horace Bent, who organizes the contest. “Let other awards cheer the contents within, the Diagram will always continually judge the book by its cover (title).”


  • Juneau, Alaska, is larger than Rhode Island.
  • After reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Byron said, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
  • If A + B + C = 180°, then tan A + tan B + tan C = (tan A)(tan B)(tan C).
  • Five counties meet in the middle of Lake Okeechobee.
  • “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” — George Sand

No one knows whether Andrew Jackson was born in North Carolina or South Carolina. The border hadn’t been surveyed well at the time.