Points and Pauses

Gertrude Stein’s 1935 lecture “Poetry and Grammar” includes a section on punctuation, for which she had a peculiar disdain:

There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not. Let us begin with the punctuations that are not. Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting.

In 2000, Kenneth Goldsmith rather archly removed the words from this passage and offered the bare punctuation as a poem titled “Gertrude Stein’s Punctuation from ‘Gertrude Stein on Punctuation'” (the full passage and the poem are both here). Goldsmith did the same thing with the punctuation chapter from Strunk & White’s Elements of Style and with Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses — a few hyphens and a period.

Carl Reuterswärd’s 1960 novel Prix Nobel consists entirely of punctuation marks. Reuterswärd felt that ordinary writing robs punctuation of its meaning; the surrounding words convey concepts and the commas, colons, and periods simply help to mark it. Removing the words, though, revealed an “interesting alternative: not to ignore syntax but certainly to forgo ‘the preserved meaning of others.’ The ‘absence’ that occurs is not mute. For want of ‘governing concepts’ punctuation marks lose their neutral value. They begin to speak an unuttered language out of that already expressed. This cannot help producing a ‘colon concept’ in you, a need of exclamation, of pauses, of periods, of parentheses.”

In 2005, Chinese novelist Hu Wenliang offered 140,000 yuan ($16,900 U.S.) to the reader who could decipher his novel «?», which consists entirely of punctuation marks.

The autobiography of the American eccentric “Lord” Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) contains 8,847 words and no punctuation. When readers complained, he added a page of punctuation marks to the second edition, inviting them to “peper and solt it as they plese.”

06/30/2022 More: Reader Kevin Orlin Johnson sent this poem by David Morice, from the February 2012 issue of Word Ways:

% , & –
+ . ? /
“ :
% ;
+ $ [ \

It’s a limerick:

Percent comma ampersand dash
Plus period question mark slash
Quotation mark colon
Percent semicolon
Plus dollar sign bracket backslash

(Thanks, Kevin.)

An Early Start

Edith Wharton was “reading” before she knew the alphabet. As a young girl she found Washington Irving’s 1832 book Tales of the Alhambra in her parents’ library and discovered “richness and mystery in the thick black type”:

At any moment the impulse might seize me; and then, if the book was in reach, I had only to walk the floor, turning the pages as I walked, to be swept off full sail on the sea of dreams. The fact that I could not read added to the completeness of the illusion, for from those mysterious blank pages I could evoke whatever my fancy chose. Parents and nurses, peeping at me through the cracks of doors (I always had to be alone to ‘make up’), noticed that I often held the book upside down, but that I never failed to turn the pages, and that I turned them at about the right pace for a person reading aloud as passionately and precipitately as was my habit.

Only later did she learn to value books for their substance rather than as vessels for her own imagination. “[M]y father, by dint of patience, managed to drum the alphabet into me; and one day I was found sitting under a table, absorbed in a volume which I did not appear to be using for improvisation. My immobility attracted attention, and when asked what I was doing, I replied: ‘Reading.'”

(From her 1934 autobiography A Backward Glance.)



Convalescing from pneumonia one winter, Mary L. Daniels occupied herself by collecting all the digressions to the reader in the 47 novels of Anthony Trollope. Victorian fiction permitted a writer to stop in mid-story and expound his own views, and Trollope indulged this privilege with staggering frequency — together his digressions fill nearly 400 pages of close-set type, practically a novel’s worth in themselves. Some examples:

  • “Throughout the world, the more wrong a man does, the more indignant is he at wrong done to him.”
  • “A man cannot rid himself of a prejudice because he knows or believes it to be a prejudice.”
  • “Prosperity is always becoming more prosperous.”
  • “It is not the girl that the man loves, but the image which imagination has built up for him to fill the outside covering which has pleased his senses.”
  • “When we buckle on our armour in any cause, we are apt to go on buckling it, let the cause become as weak as it may.”
  • “They say that the pith of a lady’s letter is in the postscript.”
  • “How often in the various amusements of the world is one tempted to pause a moment and ask oneself whether one really likes it!”
  • “There is nothing that a woman will not forgive a man, when he is weaker than she is herself.”
  • “The comic almanacs give us dreadful pictures of January and February; but, in truth, the months which should be made to look gloomy in England are March and April. Let no man boast himself that he has got through the perils of winter till at least the seventh of May.”

“These digressions are pure Trollope — at least of that moment — undiluted by plot, character, theme, or modern exegesis,” Daniels writes. “By studying these digressions alone, we should be able to trace any changes in Trollope’s thinking without reference to what we think he meant or to what a particular character said or did.” The whole list is here.

Double Duty

Image: Gallica

In 840 the Frankish Benedictine monk Rabanus Maurus composed 28 poems in which each line comprises the same number of letters. That’s impressive enough, but he also added painted images behind each poem that identify subsets of its letters that can be read on their own.

The final poem of the volume shows Rabanus Maurus himself kneeling in prayer at the foot of a cross whose text forms a palindrome: OROTE RAMUS ARAM ARA SUMAR ET ORO (I, Ramus, pray to you at the altar so that at the altar I may be taken up, I also pray). This text appears on both arms of the cross, so it can be read in any of four directions.

The form of the monk’s own body defines a second message: “Rabanum memet clemens rogo Christe tuere o pie judicio” (Christ, o pious and merciful in your judgment, keep me, Rabanus, I pray, safe).

And the letters in both of these painted sections also participate in the larger poem that fills the body of the page.

(From Laurence de Looze, The Letter and the Cosmos, 2016.)

In a Word

n. a person who investigates

adj. obscure

adj. of the nature of, resembling, or containing butter

n. a slight knowledge of something

In “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” Sherlock Holmes makes an enigmatic allusion: “You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.”

He says nothing more. In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Leslie Klinger writes, “Numerous pastiches and analyses of the ‘Abernetty business’ have been written and are surveyed in detail in William Hyder’s ‘Parsley and Butter: The Abernetty Business.’ Hyder concludes, without foundation, that no less than murder was involved. Is it not equally likely that a business — perhaps an inn or tavern — run by the Abernetty family was ‘dreadful’ (that is, kept in poor sanitation), and that that condition was first brought to Holmes’ notice by the butter having been left out on a hot day? The connection between this observation and the ensuing investigation remains undetermined. A number of scholars consider whether and how fast parsley will sink into butter. Not surprisingly, they do not agree.”

The Brautigan Library

A reader let me know about this: In Vancouver, Washington, there’s a library for “unwanted” manuscripts — manuscripts that no publisher wanted to publish. The Brautigan Library was inspired by Richard Brautigan’s 1971 novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, which describes a library for “the unwanted, the lyrical and haunted volumes of American writing.” Authors could place their manuscripts anywhere they liked on the library’s shelves, happy to have them preserved there though no readers could find them.

Inspired by this, in 1990 Todd Lockwood, of Burlington, Vermont, started The Brautigan Library, inviting submissions of unpublished manuscripts and encouraging visitors to read them. Lockwood’s library closed in 2005, but in 2010 its contents were taken from storage and moved to Vancouver, where John Barber, a faculty member at Washington State University, now curates it. It currently contains more than 300 manuscripts, and Barber now accepts electronic submissions. You can browse the catalog here.

The French writer David Foenkinos has written a novel in which a librarian reads Brautigan’s book and decides to create Brautigan’s library as part of the municipal library that he manages in a little town in Brittany. It’s called “Le mystère Henri Pick.”

(Thanks, January.)

Back Matter

More entries from unusual indexes:

From Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy:

Cabbage brings heaviness to the soul, 192
Calis, who would wash in no common water, 397
Fish discommended, 192; defended, 398
Genesis, thought inadvisable reading, 771
Kisses, honest and otherwise, 701 et seq.
Pork, naught for quasy stomachs, 190
Roman courtesans, their elegancy of speech, 699
Spider in a nutshell, medicine for ague, 596
Statues, love in, 649
Venison, a melancholy meat, 190
Verjuice and oatmeal is good for a parrot, 80 note

And from Gilbert White’s 1789 The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne:

ANNE, Queen, came to Wolmer-forest to see the red deer
August, the most mute month respecting the singing of birds
Castration, its strange effects
Cats, house, strange that they should be so fond of fish
Daws breed in unlikely places
Dispersion of birds, pretty equal, why
Fishes, gold and silver, why very amusing in a glass bowl
Fly, bacon, injurious to the housewife
Hogs, would live, if suffered, to a considerable age
Slugs, very injurious to wheat just come out of the ground, by eating
Worms, earth, no inconsiderable link in the chain of nature, some account of

There’s much more in Hazel K. Bell’s wonderful Indexers and Indexes in Fact & Fiction.


Hungarian physician Alexander Lenard spent seven years translating Winnie-the-Pooh into Latin:

‘Quid ergo est, Porcelle?’ dixit Christophorus Robinus lectulo exsurgens.

‘Heff,’ dixit Porcellus anhelitum ducens ut vix loqui posset, ‘heff — heff — heffalumpus!’


‘Illic,’ exclamavit ungulam agitans Porcellus.

‘Qualum praebet speciem?’

‘Sicut — sicut — habet maximum caput quod unquam vidisti. Aliquid magnum et immane — sicut — sicut nihil. Permagnum — sane, putares — nescio — permagnum nihil. Sicut caccabus.’

When it reached the New York Times bestseller list in 1960, the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “It is hard to conceive of a Latin work more calculated than this attractive volume to fascinate the modern public, young and old.” Here it is.

Early Days

In her 1914 book Una Mary: The Inner Life of a Child, Una Hunt, the daughter of geologist Frank Wigglesworth Clarke, set out to describe the subjective world of her young girlhood. Here’s an example — she had created an imaginary land she called My Country in which her alternate self, Una Mary, lived, and then established it in the Persian rug in the parlor, where her chessmen could play out their adventures:

A very yellow palm-leaf in one corner of the pattern was the Holy Land. I thought it was holey, full of holes. I had simply heard some one speak of having been there the winter before, and the name sounded sunny and yellow, a cheerful sort of place, full of caves in the soft rock. I thought the whole country must look rather like Swiss cheese to deserve its name. The Holy Land was, of course, simply infested by robbers. The Forty Thieves lived there, each with a cave to himself, all in a row, and for some reason it was always there that we hid from pirates.

The outside border of the rug was the sea. I felt sure, of course, that the world was bounded by the sea and if you sailed to the edge the ship would fall off, so the chessmen were always careful not to go beyond the second stripe of the border outside. …

The stem of one flower was the Charles River, where I had found the turtle eggs, and another was The Amazon. Always that name has fascinated me, The Amazon, and I feel sure the river itself is a tawny orange zigzag with huge, many-colored leaves and flowers growing out of it at unexpected angles. It was like that on the rug, and I chose that particular stem to be The Amazon because its color was like the sound of the word. There was another reason besides the fascination of the name itself which later made me include it in the geography of My Country, and that was because Brazil was my only association with Royalty.

Psychologist G. Stanley Hall said, “I would rather have written it myself than to have made any study of childhood that has ever appeared.” The whole thing is here.

“The Pavior”

An Author saw a Laborer hammering stones into the pavement of a street, and approaching him said:

‘My friend, you seem weary. Ambition is a hard taskmaster.’

‘I’m working for Mr. Jones, sir,’ the Laborer replied.

‘Well, cheer up,’ the Author resumed; ‘fame comes at the most unexpected times. To-day you are poor, obscure and disheartened, but to-morrow the world may be ringing with your name.’

‘What are you telling me?’ the Laborer said. ‘Can not an honest pavior perform his work in peace, and get his money for it, and his living by it, without others talking rot about ambition and hopes of fame?’

‘Can not an honest writer?’ said the Author.

— Ambrose Bierce, The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, 1911