Comp Lit

Emerson’s rules for reading:

  1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
  2. Never read any but famed books.
  3. Never read any but what you like.

“Or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, ‘No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en; / In brief, Sir, study what you most affect.'”


Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) did not keep up with new technology — including the telephone.

When an acquaintance promised to “give him a ring on Thursday,” Sir George waited for hours, then complained to his son about the man’s lack of consideration: “Such a pity to promise people things and then forget about them.”

He had been expecting a piece of jewelry.


From Hastings, on the English shore, to the French cliffs, is more than fifty miles, and they are of course hid from each other by the convexity of the earth. On the evening of the 26th of July, 1798, the coast of France was visible at Hastings to the naked eye for several leagues, as though only a few miles off. Every spot was distinctly seen from Calais, Boulogne, as far as Dieppe. With the aid of a telescope, the fishing boats were seen at anchor, the different colors of the land upon the heights were distinguishable, and the sailors pointed out the places they were in the habit of visiting. The account of the phenomenon was drawn up by Mr. Lanham, a fellow of the Royal Society, who was an eye witness.

The Thomsonian Recorder, Aug. 30, 1834

Christian the Lion

In 1969, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke bought a 35-pound lion cub at Harrods department store in London and raised him in a local furniture store. They loved their new pet, but within a year “Christian” had grown to 185 pounds and the cost of keeping him was becoming prohibitive. So conservationist George Adamson took Christian to Kenya and introduced him into the Kora Nature Reserve, where eventually he led a pride.

One year later, Rendall and Bourke traveled to Africa hoping to visit their old friend. The lion hadn’t been seen in nine months, but on the day of their arrival, he appeared outside the camp. Even so, Adamson warned them, he might not recognize them if they approached. Here’s what happened:

The Baron of Arizona

After discovering a talent for forgery during the Civil War, James Reavis headed west and started one of the most ambitious hoaxes of all time. He invented a Spanish nobleman named Miguel de Peralta, devised his entire family tree, and began assiduously forging documents claiming 10 million acres of prime Arizona land for the don’s descendants. Then he traveled throughout Spain and Mexico, carefully seeding libraries and archives with the forged deeds, mortgages, and wills.

When all was ready, he went before the U.S. surveyor general in 1881 and showed that rights to these lands now belonged to him. He imposed taxes on residents throughout Arizona, including the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Silver King Mine, but when their lawyers sought to challenge the claims they found Reavis’ carefully forged documents on file.

The ruse made Reavis one of the richest land barons in Arizona, and soon he’d bought mansions in New York, Washington, St. Louis, and Mexico. But it all lasted less than 10 years, unraveling in 1890 when a Spanish linguist detected the forgeries. Reavis served six years in prison and spent the rest of his life on the streets of Santa Fe.

Figure and Ground

An island is a body of land surrounded by water, and a lake is a body of water surrounded by land.

Now suppose the northern hemisphere were all land, and the southern hemisphere water. Is one an island, or is the other a lake?

An Early Vintage

What’s special about this 1882 Danish birth record?

Its owner, Christian Mortensen, was still alive in 1997.

He was looking forward to being declared the world’s most ancient person when he was told that a slightly older woman had been discovered in Canada.

“They just did that to spoil my birthday,” he said.