A Time Machine

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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

Islandia

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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

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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

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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

Never Mind

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“I do not remember this day.” — Dorothy Wordsworth, diary, March 17, 1798

“Such a beautiful day, that one felt quite confused how to make the most of it, and accordingly frittered it away.” — Caroline Fox, diary, January 4, 1848

Samuel Johnson resolved 14 times “to keep a journal.” The first resolution was in 1760, the last in 1782.

Good Neighbors

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I believe it then to be quite simply true that books have their own very personal feeling about their place on the shelves. They like to be close to suitable companions, and I remember once on coming into my library that I was persistently disturbed by my ‘Jane Eyre’. Going up to it, wondering what was the matter with it, restless because of it, I only after a morning’s uneasiness discovered that it had been placed next to my Jane Austens, and anyone who remembers how sharply Charlotte criticised Jane will understand why this would never do.

— Hugh Walpole, These Diversions: Reading, 1926

“Hope”

Submitted by Edward Thomas Noonan for Life magazine’s 1915 short story contest:

‘Here’s a pathetic case of chronic melancholia,’ the doctor continued, as we walked among the inmates. ‘That white-haired woman has been here twenty-six years. She is entirely tractable with one obsession. Every Sunday she writes this letter:

Sunday.

Dear John:

I am sorry we quarreled when you were going away out West. It was all my fault. I hope you will forgive and write.

Your loving,

Esther.

‘Every Monday she asks for a letter, and, though receiving none, becomes radiant with hope and says: “It will come to-morrow.” The last of the week she is depressed. Sunday she again writes her letter. That has been her life for twenty-six years. Her youthful face is due to her mental inactivity. Aimlessly she does whatever is suggested. The years roll on and her emotions alternate between silent grief and fervid hope.

‘This is the male ward. That tall man has been here twenty years. His history sheet says from alcoholism. He went to Alaska, struck gold, and returned home to marry the girl he left behind. He found her insane and began drinking, lost his fortune and then his reason, and became a ward of the State, always talking about his girl and events that happened long ago.

‘He is the “John” to whom “Esther” writes her letter.

‘They meet every day.

‘They will never know each other.’

Abstract

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Prince Hamlet thought uncle a traitor
For having it off with his Mater;
Revenge Dad or not —
That’s the gist of the plot —
And he did — nine soliloquies later.

— Stanley J. Sharpless