The world’s most beautiful book is also its most mysterious. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published anonymously in 1499, recounts the “struggle for love in a dream” of Poliphilo, who pursues his beloved Polia through 370 pages of gorgeous woodcuts and epoch-making typography. Their story is told in a cryptic polyglot text of Tuscan, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic, replete with arcane references and hidden meanings.
“The Hypnerotomachia is a catalogue of every possible and imaginable foil to understanding,” writes Liane LeFavre in her 2005 exploration of the text. “On every page one is confronted by words whose meaning must be deciphered, inscriptions that have to be interpreted, episodes whose conclusion is ambiguous, a hero and a heroine who embody ideas that have to be divined. Texts and images in code, symbolic images and their interpretation, are recurrent patterns in these cryptic tactics.”
The author’s enormous erudition continually interrupts his story: He fills 200 pages with architectural descriptions and another 60 with botanical lore. The book’s patron, Leonardo Crasso, wrote that it contains “so much science that one would search in vain through all the ancient books [for its meaning], as is the case for many occult things of nature.” The author, he wrote, “devised his work so that only the wise may penetrate the sanctuary.”
Why would anyone produce such a prodigious work of art and learning and then conceal his identity? No one knows for certain. A century and a half after its publication, a French reader discovered an acrostic concealed in the first letters of the book’s 39 chapters. These spell out “Poliam Frater Francescus Columnia Peramavit,” or “Brother Francesco Colonna loved Polonna immensely.” Who was Francesco Colonna? There are two candidates by that name, a Venetian friar and a Roman aristocrat. But both lived on for decades after 1499 and neither claimed to be author of this remarkable book. His identity, and that of the illustrator, remain uncertain.
Raymond Queneau’s A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems consists of 10 sonnets with the same rhyming sounds, so that their 140 lines can be combined into 1014 different poems.
Milorad Pavić’s 1984 “lexicon novel” Dictionary of the Khazars consists of three miniature encyclopedias that cross-reference one another. Together they document, from varying perspectives, the causes of the disappearance of the Khazar empire in the eighth century. “Each reader will put together the book for himself, as in a game of dominoes or cards, and, as with a mirror, he will get out of this dictionary as much as he puts into it, for you … cannot get more out of the truth than what you put into it.”
Julio Cortázar’s 1963 “counter-novel” Hopscotch can be read in two ways: The reader can advance through the 56 chapters in conventional order or according to an alternate order laid out by the author, which incorporates 99 “expandable chapters” supplied at the end of the book. Thus the novel “consists of many books, but two books above all.”
Georges Perec’s 1978 novel Life A User’s Manual concerns the lives of the inhabitants of a fictional Paris apartment house. Perec structured the novel by lifting off the building’s facade and mapping its rooms onto a 10×10 grid. He then placed an imaginary chess knight on a central square and worked out a tour that took the knight to every location in the building:
He used a similar technique to assign “elements” to each chapter: furniture, animals, clothes, jewels, music, books, toys, flowers, and more were salted into the building’s rooms according to the same rules. “With so much of its material predetermined,” wrote Perec biographer David Bellos, “the place of each chapter in the novel’s sequence, the place of each room described in the block of flats, and forty-two different things to say about every room — surely the book would just write itself.”
In fact Perec wrote it in 18 months. “Writing a novel is not like narrating something related directly to the real world,” he wrote. “It’s a matter of establishing a game between reader and writer.”
In Other Inquisitions, Borges writes of a strange taxonomy in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia:
On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g), stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.
This is fanciful, but it has the ring of truth — different cultures can classify the world in surprisingly different ways. In traditional Dyirbal, an aboriginal language of Australia, each noun must be preceded by a variant of one of four words that classify all objects in the universe:
- bayi: men, kangaroos, possums, bats, most snakes, most fishes, some birds, most insects, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, some spears, etc.
- balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fishes, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc.
- balam: all edible fruit and the plants that bear them, tubers, ferns, honey, cigarettes, wine, cake
- bala: parts of the body, meat, bees, wind, yamsticks, some spears, most trees, grass, mud, stones, noises and language, etc.
“The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and anthropologists,” writes UC-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). “More often than not, the linguist or anthropologist just throws up his hands and resorts to giving a list — a list that one would not be surprised to find in the writings of Borges.”
When George’s Grandmamma was told
That George had been as good as Gold,
She Promised in the Afternoon
To buy him an Immense BALLOON.
And so she did; but when it came,
It got into the candle flame,
And being of a dangerous sort
Exploded with a loud report!
The Lights went out! The Windows broke!
The Room was filled with reeking smoke.
And in the darkness shrieks and yells
Were mingled with Electric Bells,
And falling masonry and groans,
And crunching, as of broken bones,
And dreadful shrieks, when, worst of all,
The House itself began to fall!
It tottered, shuddering to and fro,
Then crashed into the street below —
Which happened to be Savile Row.
When Help arrived, among the Dead
The Still-Room Maid.
And I am dreadfully afraid
That Monsieur Champignon, the Chef,
Will now be
While George, who was in part to blame,
Received, you will regret to hear,
A nasty lump
The moral is that little Boys
Should not be given dangerous Toys.
— Hilaire Belloc, Cautionary Tales for Children, 1922
Library patrons are always asking for books with “romantic” episodes, so in 1964 librarian Robert George Reisner finally gave them what they wanted. Show Me the Good Parts: The Reader’s Guide to Sex in Literature catalogs the racy parts of hundreds of books, giving precise page numbers and summarizing each scene:
RICE, ELMER. Imperial City.
New York, Coward-McCann, 1937. 554 pp.
Holding hands in the movies, a few drinks in his apartment, some small talk about books, and then down to business.
He gets as far upscale as For Whom the Bell Tolls (“History has proved that the good guys do not always win, but we still have the sweet memory of Loyalist fighters, Maria and the American Robert Jordan, making love in a sleeping bag”) and as far down as John B. Thompson’s 1953 novel Sandy (“Sandy finds her true love as they are lashed by bolts of ecstasy, fires that consume them, surges of blinding passion, and other hack literary physiological descriptions”). The entries are arranged in categories ranging from “Normal Heterosexual Intercourse” to “Mixoscopic Zoophilia,” and Reisner includes a section on “Unwarranted Reputations” — he just can’t find anything scandalous in The Decameron, Moll Flanders, The Art of Love, or The Satyricon.
Unfortunately he focuses mostly on popular novels of the 1950s, and no one seems to have carried on the work. But perhaps it’s not too late. “I have examined 2,000 books and kept a list of the tomes that produced nothing,” he writes. “This list I have given to my publisher so that anyone who wishes to go on with this research may not have to go over the same ground.”
More wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Anger is never without a Reason, but seldom with a good One.
- The absent are never without fault, nor the present without excuse.
- The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.
- Prosperity discovers Vice, Adversity, Virtue.
- God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.
- The same man cannot be both Friend and Flatterer.
- Beauty and folly are old companions.
- Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.
- Hear Reason, or she’ll make you feel her.
- What’s given shines, what’s receiv’d is rusty.
- Sally laughs at everything you say. Why? Because she has fine teeth.
- Words may shew a man’s Wit, but Actions his Meaning.
- It’s common for men to give pretended reasons instead of one real one.
- Fear to do ill, and you need fear nought else.
- Success has ruin’d many a Man.
Altho’ thy teacher act not as he preaches,
Yet ne’ertheless, if good, do what he teaches;
Good counsel, failing men may give, for why,
He that’s aground knows where the shoal doth lie.
“I find all books too long.” — Voltaire
“The covers of this book are too far apart.” — Ambrose Bierce
“A big book is a big nuisance.” — Callimachus
“Long books, when read, are usually overpraised, because the reader wants to convince others and himself that he has not wasted his time.” — E.M. Forster
“I made this letter very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter.” — Pascal
“Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.” — Samuel Johnson
A.B. Cox, in Jugged Journalism (1925), suggested that Arthur Conan Doyle might hand over the writing of a Sherlock Holmes story to P.G. Wodehouse:
Holmes and the Dasher
It was a pretty rotten sort of day in March, I remember, that dear old Holmes and I were sitting in the ancestral halls in Baker Street, putting in a bit of quiet meditation. At least Holmes was exercising the good old grey matter over a letter that had just come, while I was relaxing gently in an arm-chair.
‘What-ho, Watson, old fruit,’ he said at last, tossing the letter over to me. ‘What does that mass of alluvial deposit you call a brain make of this, what, what?’
“The letter announces that Cissie Crossgarters will be rolling round to see jolly old Holmes,” explains Richard Lancelyn Green in The Sherlock Holmes Letters. “It is all dashed rotten and pretty thick, but when Holmes has splashed a little soda into his glass of cocaine, he heaves himself out of his chair and trickles out to her. ‘What ho!’ says Bertie Watson when Holmes returns. Everything is top-hole and the chappie Holmes announces that Cissie and he are engaged to be married.”
Miles Kington once wrote a Holmes adventure in blank verse — it’s called “The Case of the Danish Prince”:
SHER: But here, unless I'm much mistook, comes one That needs our aid. A case at last! (Enter to them HAMLET) HAM: Which one -- SHERL: Of us is Holmes? 'Tis I. This gentle here Is Watson, my devoted friend and colleague. HAM: Good morrow to you both. You do not know me -- SHERL: Apart from knowing that you are a prince, From Denmark, I would hazard, and a solitary, That you take snuff, have lately been at sea, Were frightened by a horse at five and now Are sitting for your portrait, you are a stranger. WATS: Good heavens, Holmes!
The full text is here.
In 1959, Dallas journalist John Howard Griffin used drugs and sunlamps to darken his skin and then traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia posing as a black man and keeping a diary of his experiences. He found it to be “the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared and the detested.” When he applied for work at a plant in Mobile, the foreman told him, “No, you couldn’t get anything like that here.”
His voice was not unkind. It was the dead voice one often hears. Determined to see if I could break in somehow, I said: ‘But if I could do you a better job, and you paid me less than a white man …’
‘I’ll tell you … we don’t want you people. Don’t you understand that?’
‘I know,’ I said with real sadness. ‘You can’t blame a man for trying at least.’
‘No use trying down here,’ he said. ‘We’re gradually getting you people weeded out from the better jobs at this plant. We’re taking it slow, but we’re doing it. Pretty soon we’ll have it so the only jobs you can get here are the ones no white man would have.’
‘How can we live?’ I asked hopelessly, careful not to give the impression I was arguing.
‘That’s the whole point,’ he said, looking me square in the eyes, but with some faint sympathy, as though he regretted the need to say what followed: ‘We’re going to do our damnedest to drive every one of you out of the state.’
In a Mississippi bus station he felt a “hate stare” that would grow familiar. “It came from a middle-aged, heavyset, well-dressed white man. He sat a few yards away, fixing his eyes on me. Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: ‘What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?'”
Sherlock Holmes was based on a real man, Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell, whom Arthur Conan Doyle had served as a clerk in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Bell was famous for making deductions about his patients. He greeted one by saying, “Ah, I perceive that you are a soldier, a noncommissioned officer, and that you have served in Bermuda.”
When the man acknowledged this, Bell addressed his students. “How did I know that, gentlemen? The matter is simplicity itself. He came into the room without taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly’s room. He was a soldier. A slight authoritative air, combined with his age, shows that he was a noncommissioned officer. A slight rash on the forehead tells me that he was in Bermuda, and subject to a certain rash known only there.”
On another occasion Bell challenged his students to identify a bitter drug by taste alone. They watched him dip a finger into the tumbler and taste it, and reluctantly followed suit. “Gentlemen,” he said with a laugh, “I am deeply grieved to find that not one of you has developed this power of perception which I so often speak about; for if you had watched me closely, you would have found that while I placed my forefinger in the medicine, it was the middle finger which found its way into my mouth.”
Dutch author Leo Lionni devoted most of his career to children’s books, but in 1977 he undertook a weird experiment. Parallel Botany is a catalog of made-up plants, whose made-up features are described by made-up botanists and illustrated by Lionni’s pencil drawings. Sigurya barbulata, at left, is distinguished by its crowning “cephalocarpus”; a specimen discovered in a Mexican pyramid was found to have been metallized into an organic mace, but how this had come about is the subject of “furious debates.”
“The difficulties of applying traditional methods of research to the study of parallel botany stem chiefly from the matterlessness of the plants,” Lionni wrote. “Deprived as they are of any real organs or tissues, their character would be completely indefinable if it were not for the fact that parallel botany is nonetheless botany, and as such it reflects, even if somewhat distantly, many of the most evident features of normal plants.”
Why do all this? Lionni closes with a quote by the made-up Swedish philosopher Erud Kronengaard: “There are two kinds of men, those who are capable of wonder and those who are not. I hope to God that it is the first who will forge our destiny.”
n. a list of written stupidities
Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:
- He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
- Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
- Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
- Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
- With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
- Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
- So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
- Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
- O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
- The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
- Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
- Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
- Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
- Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)
In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
More proverbs from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Those who have nothing to trouble them, will be troubled at nothing.
- Great modesty often hides great merit.
- The Muses love the Morning.
- Do me the favour to deny me at once.
- There’s none deceived but he that trusts.
- If evils come not, then our fears are vain; and if they do, fear but augments the pain.
- Full of courtesie, full of craft.
- The tongue is ever turning the aching tooth.
- Nothing dries sooner than a Tear.
- In the Affairs of this World Men are saved, not by Faith, but by the Want of it.
- An old young man will be a young old man.
- The prodigal generally does more injustice than the covetous.
- Singularity in the right, hath ruined many: happy those who are convinced of the general Opinion.
- Why does the blind man’s wife paint herself?
“The wit of conversation consists more in finding it in others, than shewing a great deal yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with his own facetiousness and ingenuity, will the sooner come into it again. Most men had rather please than admire you and seek less to be instructed and diverted, than approved and applauded; and it is certainly the most delicate sort of pleasure, to please another. But that sort of wit, which employs itself insolently in criticizing and censuring the words and sentiments of others in conversation, is absolute folly; for it answers none of the needs of conversation. He who uses it neither improves others, is improved himself, or pleases any one.”
Inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, marine engineer Simon Lake devoted himself to making a working practical submarine. In 1898, when his company built the first sub to operate successfully in the open sea, Verne sent a congratulatory telegram:
WHILE MY BOOK ‘TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA’ IS ENTIRELY A WORK OF IMAGINATION, MY CONVICTION IS THAT ALL I SAID IN IT WILL COME TO PASS. A THOUSAND MILE VOYAGE IN THE BALTIMORE SUBMARINE BOAT IS EVIDENCE OF THIS. THIS CONSPICUOUS SUCCESS OF SUBMARINE NAVIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES WILL PUSH ON UNDER-WATER NAVIGATION ALL OVER THE WORLD. IF SUCH A SUCCESSFUL TEST HAD COME A FEW MONTHS EARLIER IT MIGHT HAVE PLAYED A GREAT PART IN THE WAR JUST CLOSED. THE NEXT GREAT WAR MAY BE LARGELY A CONTEST BETWEEN SUBMARINE BOATS.
Bonus fact: The “20,000 leagues” in Verne’s title refers to the distance of the Nautilus’ voyage, not its depth. The sea is only about 2 miles deep; 20,000 leagues is nearly 70,000 miles.
The last canto of Dante’s Purgatorio contains this perplexing sentence:
And if perchance
My saying, dark as Themis or as Sphinx,
Fail to persuade thee, (since like them it foils
The intellect with blindness) yet ere long
Events shall be the Naiads, that will solve
This knotty riddle, and no damage light
On flock or field.
When did water nymphs solve the riddle of the Sphinx? It turns out that Dante was relying on a flawed medieval edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that rendered Laïades (meaning Oedipus, the son of Laius) as Naïades, or naiads. He believed that water nymphs had ridden their sea monsters across the desert to solve the Sphinx’s riddle.
The version of the story that we know, in which Oedipus solves the riddle, comes from Sophocles’ Oedipus, which, being written in Greek, was unavailable to Dante. And he cast his own version in such exquisite language that it’s now immortal — one classic work misquoting another.
n. a hoarder of books
In the rare book collection of the archives at Caltech is a copy of Adrien-Marie Legendre’s 1808 text on number theory. It comes from the collection of Eric Temple Bell, who taught mathematics at Caltech from 1926 to 1953. Inside the book is an inscription in Bell’s handwriting:
This book survived the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April, 1906. It was buried with about 600 others, in a vacant lot, before the fire reached the spot. The house next door to the lot fell upon the cache; the tar from the roof baked the 4 feet of dirt, covering the books, to brick, and incinerated all but 4 books, of which this is one. Signed: E. T. Bell. Book buried just below Grace Church, at California and Stockton Streets. House number 729 California Street.
During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys came upon Sir William Batten burying his wine in a pit in his garden. Pepys “took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of” and later buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” I don’t know whether he ever recovered them.
Mark Twain’s 3-year-old daughter Susie found this letter waiting for her on Christmas morning 1875:
Palace of St. Nicholas,
In the Moon,
My Dear Susie Clemens:
I have received & read all the letters which you & your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother & your nurses; & I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown people’s alphabets, you used the character which all children, in all lands on earth & in the twinkling stars use; & as all my subjects in the moon are children & use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your & your baby sister’s jagged & fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother & the nurses, for I am a foreigner & cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you & the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight & when you were asleep, & delivered them all, myself — & kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice-mannered, & about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letters which you dictated, there were some words which I could not make out, for certain, & one or two small orders which I couldn’t fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls had just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star, away up in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star, & you will say, ‘Little Snow Flake (for that is the child’s name,) I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.’ That is, you must write that, with your own hand, & Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it, she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light & thin, for the distance is great & the postage very heavy.
There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be ‘trunk full of doll’s clothes?’ Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody, & I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen door-bell rings, George must be blindfolded & sent to open the door, & then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet & take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tip-toe and not speak — otherwise he will die some day. Then you must go up to the nursery & stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed, & put your ear to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen, & when I whistle through it, you must speak in the tube & say, ‘Welcome, Santa Claus!’ Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not? If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color, & then you must tell me every single thing, in detail, which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say ‘Good bye & a Merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens!’ You must say, ‘Good bye, good old Santa Claus, & thank you very much — & please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star to-night & she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay-window; & every fine night I will look at her star & say, I know somebody up there, & like her, too.’ Then you must go down in the library, & make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, & everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon & get those things, & in a few minutes I will come down the chimney which belongs to the fire-place that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want, because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery-chimney, you know.
People may talk, if they want to, till they hear my footsteps in the hall — then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my foot steps at all — so you may go now & then & peep through the dining room doors, & by & by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die some day. You must watch George, & not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holy-stone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; & whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty, & somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little Sweetheart?
Good-bye, for a few minutes, till I come down to the world & ring the kitchen door-bell.
Whom people sometimes call ‘The Man in the Moon.’
In May 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted received a letter from his 4-year-old son Henry, asking him to send the family dog to Massachusetts, where he and his mother were visiting family friends. Olmsted replied:
The cats keep coming into the yard, six of them every day, and Quiz drives them out. If I should send Quiz to you to drive the cows away from your rhubarb he would not be here to drive the cats out of the yard. If six cats should keeping coming into the yard every day and not go out, in a week there would be 42 of them and in a month 180 and before you came back next November 1260. Then if there should be 1260 cats in the yard before next November half of them at least would have kittens and if half of them should have 6 kittens apiece, there would be more than 5000 cats and kittens in the yard. There would not be any place for Rosanna to spread the clothes unless she drove them all off the grass plot, and if she did they would have to crowd at the end of the yard nearest the house, and if they did that they would make a great pile as high as the top of my windows. A pile of 5000 cats and kittens, some of them black ones, in front of my window would make my office so dark I should not be able to write in it. Besides that those underneath, particularly the kittens, would be hurt by those standing on top of them and I expect they would make such a great squalling all the time that I should not be able to sleep, and if I was not able to sleep, I should not be able to work, and if I did not work I should not have any money, and if I had not any money, I could not send any to Plymouth to pay your fare back on the Fall River boat, and I could not pay my fare to go to Plymouth and so you and I would not ever see each other any more. No, Sir. I can’t spare Quiz and you will have to watch for the cows and drive them off yourself or you will raise no rhubarb.
Your affectionate father.
Lesser-known maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander, hath as lasting fame as his master.
- Who has deceiv’d thee so oft as thy self?
- We are not so sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.
- A temper to bear much, will have much to bear.
- Content and riches seldom meet together; riches take thou, contentment I had rather.
- Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.
- Vanity backbites more than malice.
- In success be moderate.
- A new truth is a truth, and an old error is an error, tho’ Clodpate won’t allow either.
- What maintains one Vice would bring up two children.
- The Golden Age never was the present Age.
- Quarrels never could last long, if on one side lay the wrong.
- If your riches are yours, why don’t you take them with you t’other World?
“Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful. Nor is a duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.”
In 1880, Sidney Lanier made an important announcement to his 11-year-old son Charley:
West Chester, Pa.
August 15, 1880
My dear Charley:
A young man came to our house yesterday morning who claims that he is a brother of yours and Sidney’s and Harry’s and that he is entitled to all the rights and privileges appertaining unto that honorable connection. … He is a most exemplary young man. He never stays out late at night; neither chews, smokes, nor uses snuff; abstains from all intoxicating liquors, and does not touch even tea or coffee; however much preserves and fruit-cake there may be on the supper-table, he never asks for any; he does no kind of work on the Sabbath; he honors his father and mother, particularly his mother; he plays no games of hazard, not even marbles for winnance; and I am positively certain that in the whole course of his life he has never uttered a single angry or ungentlemanly word. I am bound to admit that he has his shortcomings: he isn’t as particular about his clothes as I would like to see him; he has a way of trying to get both fists in his mouth which certainly does look odd in company; and he wants his breakfast in the morning at four o’clock — an hour at which it is very inconvenient, with our household arrangements, to furnish it to him. …
Earnestly hoping that this lovely little (for I omitted to mention that he is small of stature) brother Rob may find a good warm place in your three hearts without being obliged to resort to extreme measures, and with a hundred embraces for you, me dear big Charley,
Your &c &c &c.
A letter from William James to his 8-year-old daughter Peggy, June 19, 1895:
I am very happy here, and fear that you may already have gone up to Chocorua with your Mamma. Yesterday a beautiful humming bird came into the library and spent two hours without resting, trying to find his way out by the skylight in the ceiling. You never saw such untiring strength. Filled with pity for his fatigue, I went into the garden and culled a beautiful rose. The moment I held it up in my hand under the skylight, the angelic bird flew down into it and rested there as in a nest — the beautifullest sight you ever saw.
In November 1921 Carl Sandburg’s 10-year-old daughter Margaret fell asleep in class and was diagnosed with nocturnal epilepsy. Her mother rushed her to Battle Creek Sanitarium, where her condition would be treated with fasting. Sandburg wrote to her:
This is only a little letter from your daddy to say he thinks about you hours and hours and he knows that there was never a princess or a fairy worth so much love. We are starting on a long journey and hard fight — you and mother and daddy — and we are going to go on slowly, quietly, hand in hand, the three of us, never giving up. And so we are going to win. Slowly, quietly, never giving up, we are going to win.
They did. Margaret’s weight plummeted, but she recovered and went on to edit many of her father’s works. In 1953 Sandburg wrote to a friend, “Margaret has become widely read, a scholar who often surprises me with her erudition, knows the Bible and Shakespeare better than I do.”
Entries in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911):
CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.
HERS, pron. His.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
IMPUNITY, n. Wealth.
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
LANGUAGE, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
OTHERWISE, adv. No better.
POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.
He defined nonsense as “the objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.”