Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire includes a character named John Shade, a poet who writes the lines

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,
A singing in the ears.

In the first edition of his 1964 book The Ambidextrous Universe, Martin Gardner quoted these lines and, as a joke, credited them to Shade rather than Nabokov, listing Shade in the index.

Nabokov, in turn, in his 1969 novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle had a character quote Gardner’s book and the same two lines of verse:

‘Space is a swarming in the eyes, and Time a singing in the ears,” says John Shade, a modern poet, as quoted by an invented philosopher (‘Martin Gardiner’) in The Ambidextrous Universe, page 165.

Gardner’s book concerns symmetry, and Ada is a palindrome; further, the action in that novel takes place on Anti-Terra, a sort of mirror image of Earth. Nabokov’s 1974 novel Look at the Harlequins!, also influenced by Gardner’s book, concerns a man who can’t distinguish left from right.

(Thanks, Jeff.)

Fair Play


In writing novels as well as plays the cardinal rule is to treat the various characters as if they were chessmen, and not try to win the game by altering the rules; for instance, not move the knight as if it were a pawn, and so on. Again the characters ought to be strictly defined, and not put out of action in order to help the author to accomplish his purpose; for, on the contrary, it is through their activity alone he should try to win. Not to do this is to appeal to the miraculous, which is always unnatural.

The Reflections of [Georg Christoph] Lichtenberg, 1908

Fancy That

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2005 Yale psychologists Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom asked children and adults about the beliefs of fictional characters regarding other characters — both those that exist in the same world, such as Batman and Robin, and those that inhabit different worlds, such as Batman and SpongeBob SquarePants.

They found that while both adults and young children distinguish these two types of relationships, young children “often claim that Batman thinks that Robin is make-believe.”

“This is a surprising result; it seems unlikely that children really believe that Batman thinks Robin is not real,” they wrote. “If they did, they should find stories with these characters incomprehensible.”

One possible explanation is that young children can find it hard to take a character’s perspective, and so might have been answering from their own point of view rather than Batman’s. In a second study, kids acknowledged that characters from the same world can act on each other.

But this is a complex topic even for grownups. “James Bond inhabits a world quite similar to our own, and so his beliefs should resemble those of a real person. Like us, he should think Cinderella is make-believe. On the other hand, Cinderella inhabits a world that is sufficiently dissimilar to our own that its inhabitants should not share many of our beliefs. Our intuition, then, is that Cinderella should not believe that James Bond is make-believe; she should have no views about him at all.”

(Deena Skolnick and Paul Bloom, “What Does Batman Think About Spongebob? Children’s Understanding of the Fantasy/Fantasy Distinction,” Cognition 101:1 [2006], B9-B18. See Author!, Truth and Fiction, and Split Decision.)

Stops and Starts


Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle is written in his famously tortured syntax:

It led, briefly, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder, yet not quite a remembrance, as they sat much separated at a very long table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly.

James Thurber parodied this with “The Beast in the Dingle”:

He had brought himself so fully in the end, poor Grantham, to accept his old friend’s invitation to accompany her to an ‘afternoon’ at ‘Cornerbright’ that now, on the very porch of the so evident house, he could have, for his companion, in all surrender, a high, fine — there was no other word for it — twinkle.

Thurber originally called this “The Return of the Screw.” See Homage and A Prose Maze.

Asked and Answered

Tennyson was plagued by autograph hunters.

As a pretext, one wrote to him asking which was the better dictionary, Webster’s or Ogilvie’s.

He replied by cutting the word Ogilvie’s from the letter, pasting it to a blank sheet of paper, and mailing it back.

See Pen Fatigue.


  • Dorothy Parker said that James Thurber’s cartoon figures had the “semblance of unbaked cookies.”
  • In typing AUTHENTICITY, the left and right hands alternate.
  • P.G. Wodehouse wrote the last 26 pages of Thank You, Jeeves in one day.
  • 1232882 + 3287682 = 123288328768

(Thanks, Steve.)


When Charles Dickens was editing Household Words, a young writer named Laman Blanchard submitted an interminable poem titled “Orient Pearls at Random Strung.”

Dickens mailed it back with a note: “Dear Blanchard, too much string — Yours, C.D.”


When Joseph Addison lent a sum of money to his friend Temple Stanyan, Stanyan became meekly agreeable, unwilling to argue with Addison as he used to.

At last Addison told him, “Sir, either contradict me or pay me my money.”

Biographer Peter Smithers calls this “a salvo of which Johnson himself might have been proud.”

Good for the Gander

In the early days of Dada I received for review a book which contained the following ‘poem’:

       'A B C D E F
        G H I J K L
        M N O P Q R
        S T U V W X
            Y Z.'

On which I commented:

       '1 2 3 4 5
        6 7 8 9 10.'

I still think that was the most snappy review I ever wrote; but unfortunately The Times refused to print it.

— Richard Aldington, Life for Life’s Sake, 1941

Turns of Phrase

Erasmus’ 1512 rhetoric textbook Copia lists 195 variations on the sentence “Your letter delighted me greatly”:

Your brief note refreshed my spirits in no small measure.
I was in no small measure refreshed in spirit by your grace’s hand.
From your affectionate letter I received unbelievable pleasure.
Your pages engendered in me an unfamiliar delight.
I conceived a wonderful delight from your pages.
Your lines conveyed to me the greatest joy.
The greatest joy was brought to me by your lines.
We derived great delight from your excellency’s letter.
From my dear Faustus’ letter I derived much delight.
In these Faustine letters I found a wonderful kind of delectation.
At your words a delight of no ordinary kind came over me.
I was singularly delighted by your epistle.
To be sure your letter delighted my spirits!
Your brief missive flooded me with inexpressible Joy.
As a result of your letter, I was suffused by an unfamiliar gladness.
Your communication poured vials of joy on my head.
Your epistle afforded me no small delight.
The perusal of your letter charmed my mind with singular delight.

He followed this with 200 variations on the phrase “Always, as long as I live, I shall remember you.”