A poetic letter from Emily Dickinson to her aunt, Mrs. J. Howard Sweetser, late autumn 1884:

Dear Nellie,

I hardly dare tell you how beautiful your Home is, lest it dissuade you from the more mortal Homestead in which you now dwell — Each Tree a Scene from India, and Everglades of Rugs.

Is not ‘lead us not into Temptation’ an involuntary plea under circumstances so gorgeous? Your little note dropped in upon us as softly as the flake of Snow that followed it, as spacious and as stainless, a paragraph from Every Where — to which we never go — We miss you more this time, I think, than all the times before —

An enlarged ability for missing is perhaps a part of our better growth, as the strange Membranes of the Tree broaden out of sight.

I hope the Owl remembers me, and the Owl’s fair Keeper, indeed the remembrance of each of you, were a gallant boon — I still recall your Son’s singing, and when the ‘Choir invisible’ assemble in your Trees, shall reverently compare them — Thank you for all the Acts of Light which beautified a Summer now past to its reward.

Love for your Exile, when you write her, as for Love’s Aborigines — Our Coral Roof, though unbeheld, its foliage softly adds —

Emily, with Love

A Nonentity

In 1878 R.W.S. Ralston, assistant librarian of the British Museum, wrote to Leo Tolstoy asking for some biographical information for an article he was writing. Tolstoy wrote back:

Dear Sir,

I am very sorry not to be able to give you a satisfactory answer to your letter. The reason of it is that I very much doubt my being an author of such importance as to interest by the incidents of my life not only the Russian, but also the European public. I am fully convinced by many examples of writers, of whom their contemporaries made very much and which were quite forgotten in their lifetime, that for contemporaries it is impossible to judge rightly on the merits of literary works, and therefore, notwithstanding my wishes, I cannot partake the temporary illusion of some friends of mine, which seem to be sure that my works must occupy some place in the Russian literature. Quite sincerely not knowing if my works shall be read after a hundred years, or will be forgotten in a hundred days, I do not wish to take a ridiculous part in the very probable mistakes of my friends.

Hoping that on consideration of my motives you will kindly excuse my refusal,

I am yours faithfully,

Count L. Tolstoy

Ralston got the information from Turgenev. His article appeared in 1879 under the title “Count Leo Tolstoy’s Novels.”

Open Questions

The Mad Hatter poses a famous unanswered riddle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

W.S. Gilbert poses another one in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Yeomen of the Guard. The jester Jack Point asks, “Why is a cook’s brainpan like an overwound clock?” The Lieutenant impatiently says, “A truce to this fooling,” and Jack withdraws, saying, “Just my luck: my best conundrum wasted.”

“Like many in the audience, I have often wondered what the answer to that conundrum is, and one day I put a question about it to Gilbert,” wrote Henry A. Litton in The Secrets of a Savoyard (1922). “With a smile he said he couldn’t tell me then, but he would leave me the answer in his will.”

“I’m sorry to say that it was not found there — maybe because there was really no answer to the riddle, or perhaps because he had forgotten to bequeath to the world this interesting legacy.”


Rejection letter sent by the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine, devised by editor Brian Doyle:

Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful submission to the magazine, which we are afraid we are going to have to decline, for all sorts of reasons. The weather is dreary, our backs hurt, we have seen too many cats today and as you know cats are why God invented handguns, there is a sweet incoherence and self-absorption in your piece that we find alluring but we have published far too many of same in recent years mostly authored by the undersigned, did we mention the moist melancholy of the weather, our marriages are unkempt and disgruntled, our children surly and crammed to the gills with a sense of entitlement that you wonder how they will ever make their way in the world, we spent far too much money recently on silly graphic design and now must slash the storytelling budget, our insurance bills have gone up precipitously, the women’s basketball team has no rebounders, an aunt of ours needs a seventh new hip, the shimmer of hope that was the national zeitgeist looks to be nursing a whopper of a black eye, and someone left the toilet roll thing empty again, without the slightest consideration for who pays for things like that. And there were wet towels on the floor. And the parakeet has a goiter. And the dog barfed up crayons. Please feel free to send us anything you think would fit these pages, and thank you for considering our magazine for your work. It’s an honor.

From Letters of Note.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I do not like books. I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it. I keep my books at the British Museum and at Mudie’s, and it makes me very angry if any one gives me one for my private library. I once heard two ladies disputing in a railway carriage as to whether one of them had or had not been wasting money. ‘I spent it in books,’ said the accused, ‘and it’s not wasting money to buy books.’ ‘Indeed, my dear, I think it is,’ was the rejoinder, and in practice I agree with it.

— Samuel Butler, Ramblings in Cheapside, 1890


  • The negative space in the eight of diamonds forms an 8.
  • William Brewster, leader of the Plymouth Colony, named his children Jonathan, Patience, Fear, Love, and Wrestling.
  • Wilfred Owen’s mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day.
  • “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.” — William James

A Time Machine

The life of a good book is far longer than the life of a man. Its author dies, and his generation dies, and his successors are born and die; the world he knew disappears, and new orders which he could not foresee are established on its ruins; law, religion, science, commerce, society, all are transformed into shapes which would astound him; but his book continues to live. Long after he and his epoch are dead, the book speaks with his voice.

— Gilbert Highet, on Juvenal


When University of Pennsylvania law professor Austin Tappan Wright died in a highway accident in 1931, he left behind a surprising legacy: an enormous novel about a nonexistent country. Wright had begun the project secretly as a young lawyer in the Boston office of Louis Brandeis, first preparing a 400-page summary of the country’s history, literature, peerage, and philosophy, as well as a detailed geography, contoured maps, weather, and import and export statistics. When Brandeis ascended to the Supreme Court Wright went on to teach at Berkeley and Penn, but none of his colleagues ever knew of the project.

Apparently Wright had found his own civilization lacking and devised this alternative as a sort of refuge. His hero, John Lang, becomes consul to the island nation, but rather than open it for trade he decides to remain there, “because the Islandian way is a better one. There a man is not split so that body and mind fall apart, the one going too far from earth, the other sinking too low in it. Here the labor which is regarded as the highest knows the realities on which men live only at second hand. We think too much about thoughts and not enough about feelings and things. Men specialize and deal with fragments and not with wholes. And our over intense brain life either desiccates the pure animal soul in man or makes an unmanlike beast of it. Desire becomes impure, perverse, a thing to be hidden and not to be faced.”

After Wright’s death, his wife typed out the 2,000-page manuscript, his daughter edited it down to a publishable length, and they put it out in 1942. We’ll never know what precisely it meant to its author, but the care he lavished on it is obvious. UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell called it “one of the most completely documented imaginative works ever conceived,” and in the Pacific Spectator Kenneth Oliver wrote, “No other author of a utopian novel has known the land of his creation as intimately as Austin Wright knew Islandia.”

The Steam Man

I’ve written about this before, but I hadn’t realized a photo existed: In 1868 (!) Zadoc Dederick and Isaac Grass patented a steam-powered robot that pulled a cart. They invested $2,000 in a prototype, hoping to mass-produce top-hatted walking servants for $300 apiece.

The plan never went through, but it lives on in another way: The invention may have inspired Edward Ellis’ 1868 novel The Steam Man of the Prairies, in which a steam-powered robot carries teenage inventor Johnny Brainerd through a series of adventures:

It was about ten feet in height, measuring to the top of the ‘stove-pipe hat,’ which was fashioned after the common order of felt coverings, with a broad brim, all painted a shiny black. The face was made of iron, painted a black color, with a pair of fearful eyes, and a tremendous grinning mouth. A whistle-like contrivance was made to answer for the nose. The steam chest proper and boiler, were where the chest in a human being is generally supposed to be, extending also into a large knapsack arrangement over the shoulders and back. A pair of arms, like projections, held the shafts, and the broad flat feet were covered with sharp spikes, as though he were the monarch of base-ball players. The legs were quite long, and the step was natural, except when running, at which time, the bolt uprightness in the figure showed different from a human being.

“Jump up there, and I’ll give you all a ride!”

Paper Weight

For all books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time. Mark this distinction — it is not one of quality only. It is not merely the bad book that does not last, and the good one that does. It is a distinction of species. There are good books for the hour, and good ones for all time; bad books for the hour, and bad ones for all time.

— John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1864