Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is credited with being the first modern detective story — biographer Jeffrey Meyers says it “changed the history of world literature.” The story established the convention of the brilliant investigator who unveils a climactic revelation before explaining the reasoning that led him to it. The lead character, C. Auguste Dupin, served as a prototype for fictional detectives from Sherlock Holmes to Hercule Poirot.

But Poe himself thought the praise was overblown. “These tales of ratiocination owe most of their popularity to being something in a new key,” he wrote. “People think them more ingenious than they are — on account of their method and air of method. In the ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ for instance, where is the ingenuity in unraveling a web which you yourself … have woven for the express purpose of unraveling?” The brilliance of a detective story is transparently contrived, he said: “The reader is made to confound the ingenuity of the suppositious Dupin with that of the writer of the story.”



I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakespeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humored my fancy, and relieved me by saying, ‘The first thing you will meet in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakespeare’s works presented to you.’ Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion.

— James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791



  • By age 14, Harry Truman had read every book in the Independence, Missouri, library.
  • In honor of Ray Bradbury, a web page censored by a government returns HTTP error status code 451.
  • Wyoming, Wisconsin, is in Iowa County.
  • Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dalí were both named after dead brothers who had preceded them.
  • “Virtue is insufficient temptation.” — George Bernard Shaw

Peace and Quiet

cheyne row attic

Thomas Carlyle required absolute silence to write, and silence was hard to come by in London’s Chelsea district, where he struggled to compose his biography of Frederick the Great. His wife, Jane, postponed her cleaning until Thomas was away and perpetually tried to quiet neighborhood dogs, roosters, and street vendors. But it wasn’t enough.

In 1853 Carlyle wrote to his sister: “At length, after deep deliberation, I have fairly decided to have a top story put upon the house, one big apartment, twenty feet square, with thin double walls, light from the top, etc., and artfully ventilated, into which no sound can come; and all the cocks in nature may crow round it without my hearing a whisper of them!”

Alas, the skylight wasn’t soundproof, and he was assailed by railway whistles, church bells, and steamer sirens from the Thames. Jane wrote, “The silent room is the noisiest room in the house, and Mr. Carlyle is very much out of sorts.” He finished the biography, finally, but he called it “the Nightmare … the Minotaur … the Unutterable book.”

Dueling Servilities


An encounter between theologian and mathematician Isaac Barrow and John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester:

Barrow … met Rochester at court, who said to him, ‘doctor, I am yours to my shoe-tie;’ Barrow bowed obsequiously with, ‘my lord, I am yours to the ground;’ Rochester returned this by, ‘doctor, I am yours to the centre;’ Barrow rejoined, ‘my lord, I am yours to the antipodes;’ Rochester, not to be foiled by ‘a musty old piece of divinity,’ as he was accustomed to call him, exclaimed, ‘doctor, I am yours to the lowest pit of hell;’ whereupon Barrow turned from him with, ‘there, my lord, I leave you.’

From William Hone’s Every-Day Book, 1868.

Being There


“Gravina, an Italian critic, observes, that every man desires to see that of which he has read; but no man desires to read an account of what he has seen: so much does description fall short of reality. Description only excites curiosity: seeing satisfies it.” — Samuel Johnson



When Winnie-the-Pooh was proposed for sale in East Germany, censors found its message too neutral, insufficiently progressive, and hence not representative of East German society. Here’s an extract from the print permit files of 1959:

Winnie the Pooh is exclusively about fantasy, happiness and child’s play. Certainly our children are not less imaginative in their play, but it cannot be denied that the fantasy of our children moves in another direction. Our time is not so much about a single child with his toys on his own — and if this does prevail in a child, it is not desired and does not match our didactic ideals. Thus, the value for the education of our children is minimal and it is not worthwhile spending foreign currency on it. Yet, should it be taken on in exchange for publishing one of our valuable children’s books in West Germany, a publication should not be refused.

The book did eventually get a permit and was published in 1960.

(From Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth, Translation Under State Control, 2011.)

In a Word


adj. odd; not matched

n. an anonymous person

n. one who speaks for another

adj. not knowable for certain

Ostensibly the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were recorded by his friend John Watson. But of the 60 canonical tales, two (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”) are told in the third person. Who wrote these? Sherlock’s brother Mycroft? One of Watson’s wives? Watson himself, strangely? Arthur Conan Doyle?

In The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William Stuart Baring-Gould writes only, “There has been much controversy as to the authorship of these two adventures.”



The story of Little Red Riding Hood that we know was written by Charles Perrault in 1697, but he based it on an oral tradition from the Middle Ages, adapting it to suit the social and aesthetic standards of an upper-class audience. Here’s the folktale that Perrault’s mother would have known, The Story of Grandmother, as told by Louis and François Briffault in 1885:

There was a woman who had made some bread. She said to her daughter: ‘Go carry this hot loaf and a bottle of milk to your granny.’

So the little girl departed. At the crossway she met bzou, the werewolf, who said to her:

‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m taking this hot loaf and a bottle of milk to my granny.’

‘What path are you taking,’ said the werewolf, ‘the path of needles or the path of pins?’

‘The path of needles,’ the little girl said.

‘All right, then, I’ll take the path of pins.’

The little girl entertained herself by gathering needles. Meanwhile the werewolf arrived at the grandmother’s house, killed her, put some of her meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on the shelf. The little girl arrived and knocked at the door.

‘Push the door,’ said the werewolf, ‘it’s barred by a piece of wet straw.’

‘Good day, granny. I’ve brought you a hot loaf of bread and a bottle of milk.’

‘Put it in the cupboard, my child. Take some of the meat which is inside and the bottle of wine on the shelf.’

After she had eaten, there was a little cat which said: ‘Phooey!’

A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her granny. ‘Undress yourself, my child,’ the werewolf said, ‘and come lie down beside me.’

‘Where should I put my apron?’

‘Throw it into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing it any more.’

‘And each time she asked where she should put all her other clothes, the bodice, the dress, the petticoat, and the long stockings, the wolf responded:

‘Throw them into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing them any more.’

When she laid herself down in the bed, the little girl said:

‘Oh, Granny, how hairy you are!’

‘The better to keep myself warm, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big nails you have!’

‘The better to scratch me with, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big shoulders you have!’

‘The better to carry the firewood, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big ears you have!’

‘The better to hear you with, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big nostrils you have!’

‘The better to snuff my tobacco with, my child!’

”Oh, Grannny, what a big mouth you have!’

‘The better to eat you with, my child!’

‘Oh Granny, I’ve got to go badly. Let me go outside.’

‘Do it in the bed, my child.’

‘Oh, no, Granny, I want to go outside.’

‘All right, but make it quick.’

The werewolf attached a woolen rope to her foot and let her go outside. When the little girl was outside, she tied the end of the rope to a plum tree in the courtyard. The werewolf became impatient and said: ‘Are you making a load out there? Are you making a load?’

When he realized that nobody was answering him, he jumped out of bed and saw that the little girl had escaped. He followed her but arrived at her house just at the moment she entered.

In the Middle Ages little children might be attacked and killed by animals or supernatural creatures; Perrault transformed a “warning tale” into a “civilized” story to entertain children and adults of the educated classes. French folklorist Paul Delarue wrote, “The common elements which are lacking in the literary story are precisely those which would have shocked the society of his epoch by their cruelty (the flesh and blood of the grandmother devoured by the child), their puerility (the path of needles and the path of pins) or their impropriety (the question of the little girl about the hairy body of the grandmother). And it appears likely that Perrault eliminated them, while preserving a folk flavor and freshness in the tale which have made it an imperishable masterpiece.”

(From Jack Zipes, ed., The Trials & Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 1993.)

New Lands


Confined to his bedroom for 42 days as a punishment for dueling, Xavier de Maistre wrote A Journey Round My Room (1794), a parody of travel journals in which he heroically explores his surroundings and rhapsodizes on his discoveries:

Next to my arm-chair, as we go northward, my bed comes into sight. It is placed at the end of my room, and forms the most agreeable perspective. It is very pleasantly situated, and the earliest rays of the sun play upon my curtains. On fine summer days I see them come creeping, as the sun rises, all along the whitened wall.

De Maistre considered it a trifle, but his brother had it published, and here we are talking about it 200 years later. The whole thing is here.