A letter received by 12-year-old Enid Stevens, April 7, 1891:
So you think you’ve got the courage to come a walk by yourself with me? Indeed! Well, I shall come for you on April 31st at 13 o’clock, and first I will take you to the Oxford Zoological Gardens, and put you into a cage of LIONS, and when they’ve had a good feed, I’ll put whatever is left of you into a cage of TIGERS. Then I’ll bring you to my rooms, and give a regular beating, with a thick stick, to my new little friend. Then I’ll put you into the coal-hole, and feed you for a week on nothing but bread and water. Then I’ll send you home in a milk-cart, in one of the empty milk-cans. And after that, if ever I come for you again, you’ll scream louder than a COCKATOO!
Your Loving friend,
Once upon a time, a long while ago, there were four little people whose names were
and they all thought they should like to see the world. So they bought a large boat to sail quite round the world by sea, and then they were to come back on the other side by land. The boat was painted blue with green spots, and the sail was yellow with red stripes: and, when they set off, they only took a small Cat to steer and look after the boat, besides an elderly Quangle-Wangle, who had to cook the dinner and make the tea; for which purposes they took a large kettle.
For the first ten days they sailed on beautifully, and found plenty to eat, as there were lots of fish; and they had only to take them out of the sea with a long spoon, when the Quangle-Wangle instantly cooked them; and the Pussy-Cat was fed with the bones, with which she expressed herself pleased, on the whole: so that all the party were very happy.
During the daytime, Violet chiefly occupied herself in putting salt water into a churn; while her three brothers churned it violently, in the hope that it would turn into butter, which it seldom if ever did; and in the evening they all retired into the tea-kettle, where they all managed to sleep very comfortably, while Pussy and the Quangle-Wangle managed the boat.
After a time, they saw some land at a distance; and, when they came to it, they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that, it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses, with a great gulf-stream running about all over it; so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, 503 feet high.
When they had landed, they walked about, but found, to their great surprise, that the island was quite full of veal-cutlets and chocolate-drops, and nothing else. So they all climbed up the single high tree to discover, if possible, if there were any people; but having remained on the top of the tree for a week, and not seeing anybody, they naturally concluded that there were no inhabitants; and accordingly, when they came down, they loaded the boat with two thousand veal-cutlets and a million of chocolate-drops; and these afforded them sustenance for more than a month, during which time they pursued their voyage with the utmost delight and apathy.
— Edward Lear, “The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World,” from The Complete Nonsense Book, 1921
Do not suppose that I didn’t write, hundreds of times: the difficulty has been with the directing. I directed the letters so violently at first, that they went far beyond the mark — some of them were picked up at the other end of Russia. Last week I made a very near shot, and actually succeeded in putting ‘Earls Terrace, Kensington,’ only I over-did the number, and put 12,000, instead of 12. If you inquire for the letter at No. 12,000, I dare say they’ll give it you. After that I fell into a feeble state of health, and directed the letters so gently that one of them only reached the other side of the room. It’s lying by the side of the window now.
— Lewis Carroll, letter to Mary MacDonald, Nov. 5, 1864
So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was not this call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief? … We have heard of Fortunatus his Purse, and of the Invisible Cloak, long ago worn thread bare, and stow’d up in the Wardrobe of obsolete Romances: one might think, that were a fitter place for this Handkerchief, than that it, at this time of day, be worn on the Stage, to raise every where all this clutter and turmoil. Had it been Desdemona’s Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat: but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania, cou’d make any consequence from it.
— Thomas Rymer pans Othello in A Short View of Tragedy, 1693
In 1932 C.K. Ogden translated the last four pages of Anna Livia Plurabelle into Basic English, “the International Language of 850 words in which everything may be said.”
Here’s Joyce’s text:
Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing. My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ‘Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace!
And here’s Ogden’s translation:
Well are you conscious, or haven’t you knowledge, or haven’t I said it, that every story has an ending and that’s the he and she of it. Look, look, the dark is coming. My branches high are taking root, And my cold seat’s gone grey. ‘Viel Uhr? Filou! What time is it? It’s getting late. How far the day when I or anyone last saw Waterhouse’s clock! They took it to pieces, so they said. When will they put it together again? O, my back, my back, my back! I would go then to Aix-les-Pains. Ping pong! That the bell for Sachseläute — And Concepta de Spiritu — Pang! Take the water of your cloths! Out with the old, in with the new! Godavari keep off the rains! And give us support!
“The simplest and most complex languages of man are placed side by side,” Ogden wrote. “The reader will see that it has generally been possible to keep almost the same rhythms.” Judge for yourself.
After taking opium at Malta, Coleridge dreamed of the sentence “Varrius thus prophesied vinegar at his door by damned frigid tremblings.”
Delirious with fever in Scotland, Maria Edgeworth was haunted by the words “A soldier of the forty-second has lost his portmanteau.”
In a vision at Lerici, Shelley met his own figure, which asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”
Poet William Mickle regretted that he could not remember the poetry he composed in his dreams, which he said was “infinitely superior to anything he produced in his waking hours.” But his wife recited two lines he had spoken in his sleep:
By Heaven, I’ll wreak my woes
Upon the cowslip and the pale primrose.
Robert Browning dreamed that he attended a performance of Richard III and heard a line “immensely finer than anything else in the play. … When I woke I still had hold of the stupendous line, and it was this:
‘And when I wake my dreams are madness — Damn me!'”
As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.
For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.
— W.H. Auden, A Certain World, 1970
After Hart Crane’s death in 1932, scholars discovered that his poem “Emblems of Conduct” was largely a collage of lines borrowed from an unsuccessful Austrian poet named Samuel Greenberg, who had died of consumption in a New York hospital in 1917.
Critic William Murrell Fisher had shared some of Greenberg’s work with Crane in the early 1920s, noting that “when his eyes lighted on some of the poems, he became very excited. He flared up in a corner with it.” Crane later called Greenberg “a Rimbaud in embryo” whose work radiated “a quality that is unspeakably eerie.” To a friend he praised the “hobbling yet really gorgeous attempts that boy made without any education or time except when he became confined to a cot.”
Crane borrowed Greenberg’s notebooks from Fisher and began to arrange his favorite lines into a collage, which he called “Emblems of Conduct” after Greenberg’s poem “Conduct,” and Allen Tate and Malcolm Cowley persuaded him to include it in his first book of poems without knowing its origin.
Discovery of the debt raised charges of plagiarism against Crane, but there’s little indication that he intended to take credit for Greenberg’s work, and “Emblems of Conduct” brought attention to Greenberg that he might never have found otherwise. “All artists are plagiarists until they become transcenders,” wrote Clive Fisher in his 2002 biography of Crane, “but the fact remains that although we can never know what Greenberg might have achieved in a fairer world, there is nothing in the corpus of his work to equal even the secondary achievements of his famous admirer.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales describe a world that’s literally beyond human understanding — his characters glimpse a universe ruled by monstrous gods whose very aspect imperils our sanity.
For his 2011 experimental poem Cthulhu on Lesbos, David Jalajel reflected this by taking phrases from Lovecraft’s 1928 story “The Call of Cthulhu” and arranging them into Sapphic stanzas without regard to conventional syntax:
Dark to visit faithful But Great had ever
Old The carven idol was great Cthulhu,
None might say or others were like the old but
Things were by word of
Mouth. The chanted secret — was never spoken
Only whispered. chant “In his house at R’lyeh
Dead Cthulhu waits of the found be hanged, and
Rest were committed
It ends, fittingly, on a fearsome but enigmatic note:
Prance and slay around in by sinking black else
World by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.
Knows the end? has risen may sink, and sunk may
Rise. and in deep, and
Once there was a blue Dyspeptic, who attempted to Kill Time by reading Novels, until he discovered that all Books of Fiction were a Mockery.
After a prolonged Experience he came to know that every Specimen of Light Reading belonged to one of the following Divisions:
- The Book that Promises well until you reach the Plot, and then you Remember that you read it Summer before last.
- The book with the Author’s Picture as a Frontispiece. The Author is very Cocky. He has his Overcoat thrown back, so as to reveal the Silk Lining. That Settles it!
- The Book that runs into a Snarl of Dialect on the third Page and never gets out.
- The delectable Yarn about a Door-Mat Thief, who truly loves the Opium Fiend. Jolly Story of the Slums.
- The Book that begins with a twenty-page Description of Sloppy Weather: ‘Long swirls of riven Rain beat somberly upon the misty Panes,’ etc., etc. You turn to the last Chapter to see if it Rains all the way through the Book. This last Chapter is a Give-Away. It condenses the whole Plot and dishes up the Conclusion. After that, who would have the Nerve to wade through the Two Hundred and Forty intermediate Pages?
- The Book in which the Pictures tell the Story. After you have seen the Pictures there is no need to wrestle with the Text.
- The Book that begins with a Murder Mystery — charming Picture of Gray-Haired Man discovered Dead in his Library — Blood splashed all over the Furniture — Knife of Curious Design lying on Floor. You know at once that the most Respected and least suspected Personage in the Book committed the awful Crime, but you haven’t the Heart to Track him down and compel him to commit Suicide.
- The Book that gets away with one Man asking another: ‘By Jove, who is that Dazzling Beauty in the Box?’ The Man who asks this Question has a Name which sounds like the Title of a Sleeping Car. You feel instinctively that he is going to be all Mixed Up with that Girl in the Box before Chapter XII is reached; but who can take any real Interest in the Love Affairs of a Man with such a Name?
- The Book that tells all about Society and how Tough it is. Even the Women drink Brandy and Soda, smoke Cigarettes, and Gamble. The clever Man of the World, who says all the Killing Things, is almost as Funny as Ally Sloper. An irritable Person, after reading nine Chapters of this kind of High Life, would be ready to go Home and throw his Grandmother into the Fire.
- The dull, gray Book, or the Simple Annals of John Gardensass. A Careful Study of American Life. In Chapter I he walks along the Lane, stepping first on one Foot and then on the Other, enters a House by the Door, and sits in a four-legged wooden Chair, looking out through a Window with Glass in it. Book denotes careful Observation. Nothing happens until Page 150. Then John decides to sell the Cow. In the Final Chapter he sits on a Fence and Whittles. True Story, but What’s the Use?
Why continue? The Dyspeptic said that when he wanted something really Fresh and Original in the Line of Fiction he read the Prospectus of a Mining Corporation.
MORAL: Only the more Rugged Mortals should attempt to Keep Up on Current Literature.
— George Ade, Fables in Slang, 1899
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.”