“A Man of Principle”

During a shower of rain the Keeper of a Zoölogical garden observed a Man of Principle crouching beneath the belly of the ostrich, which had drawn itself up to its full height to sleep.

‘Why, my dear sir,’ said the Keeper, ‘if you fear to get wet you’d better creep into the pouch of yonder female kangaroo — the Saltatrix mackintosha — for if that ostrich wakes he will kick you to death in a moment!’

‘I can’t help that,’ the Man of Principle replied, with that lofty scorn of practical considerations distinguishing his species. ‘He may kick me to death if he wish, but until he does he shall give me shelter from the storm. He has swallowed my umbrella.’

— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1899

Worldly Wisdom

Proverbs from around the world:

  • Gray hair is a sign of age, not wisdom. (Greek)
  • A smiling face is half the meal. (Latvia)
  • Fear has big eyes. (Russia)
  • Adversity makes a man wise, not rich. (Romania)
  • The child tells what is in the house. (Albania)
  • Love makes time pass; time makes love pass. (France)
  • The seeds of the day are best planted in the first hour. (Dutch)
  • It is easier to criticize art than to create it. (Spain)
  • A house does not rest upon the ground, but upon a woman. (Mexico)
  • All fear is bondage. (England)
  • Nature is better than a middling doctor. (China)
  • The miles are longer at night. (German)
  • Respect is given to wealth, not to men. (Lebanon)
  • If everyone swept in front of his house, the whole town would be clean. (Poland)
  • Even the handsome are divorced. (Egypt)

“With art and knavery we live through half the year,” the Italians say. “With knavery and art we live through the other.”



Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

“The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”

(From his introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box. Thanks, Sharon.)

Nonsense Cookery

Edward Lear’s recipe for amblongus pie, 1872:

Take 4 pounds (say 4 1-2 pounds) of fresh Amblongusses, and put them in a small pipkin.

Cover them with water, and boil them for 8 hours incessantly; after which add 2 pints of new milk, and proceed to boil for 4 hours more.

When you have ascertained that the Amblongusses are quite soft, take them out, and place them in a wide pan, taking care to shake them well previously.

Grate some nutmeg over the surface, and cover them carefully with powdered gingerbread, curry-powder, and a sufficient quantity of Cayenne pepper.

Remove the pan into the next room, and place it on the floor. Bring it back again, and let it simmer for three-quarters of an hour. Shake the pan violently till all the Amblongusses have become of a pale purple colour.

Then, having prepared the paste, insert the whole carefully; adding at the same time a small pigeon, 2 slices of beef, 4 cauliflowers, and any number of oysters.

Watch patiently till the crust begins to rise, and add a pinch of salt from time to time.

Serve up in a clean dish, and throw the whole out of window as fast as possible.



Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Cask of Amontillado” is regarded today as a testament to his imagination, but in fact it was inspired by a feud with a literary rival. Poe and Thomas Dunn English had been friends, but they had a falling-out that descended into a fistfight in which Poe claimed to administer “a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death.” Thereafter the two caricatured one another in their writings — Poe even successfully sued English’s editors at the New York Mirror for libel in 1846.

In English’s novel 1844, the character Marmaduke Hammerhead is a veiled dig at Poe — he’s a liar and drunkard who is said to be the author of “The Black Crow” and uses phrases such as “Nevermore” and “lost Lenore.” It was in response to this novel that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” — the story mentions a secret society, a signal of distress, and a particular coat of arms because they all figured in English’s book. The very setting of Poe’s story derives from a scene in English’s novel that takes place in a subterranean vault.

But these associations have now been forgotten, and Poe’s story is remembered as a tale of the fantastic.

Man of the World


Names of the Mad Hatter in various translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

  • the Hatmaker
  • the Maker of Hats
  • the Hatman
  • the Man Who Made Head Protection
  • Mr. Tophat
  • Owl
  • Master Hats
  • Marble Mason
  • Stockman
  • Blockhead
  • Baboon
  • Fellow With Hats
  • Cap-Wearing Person
  • Kynedyr Wyllt mab Hettwn Tal Aryant

That last one’s in Middle Welsh. Though Lewis Carroll’s novel abounds in wordplay, rhymes, quotations, nonsense, homophones, logical twists, and Victorian allusions, it’s found its way into 174 languages and more than 9,000 editions around the world. Zongxin Feng of Tsinghua University in Beijing wrote, “Of all Western literary masterpieces introduced into China in the twentieth century, no other work has enjoyed such popularity.”

In an 1866 letter, Carroll had written, “Friends here [in Oxford] seem to think that the book is untranslatable.”

(Jon A. Lindseth, ed., Alice in a World of Wonderlands, 2015.)


A Highwayman confronted a Traveler, and covering him with a firearm, shouted: ‘Your money or your life!’

‘My good friend,’ said the Traveler, ‘according to the terms of your demand my money will save my life, my life my money; you imply that you will take one or the other, but not both. If that is what you mean please be good enough to take my life.’

‘That is not what I mean,’ said the Highwayman; ‘you cannot save your money by giving up your life.’

‘Then take it anyhow,’ the Traveler said. ‘If it will not save my money it is good for nothing.’

The Highwayman was so pleased with the Traveler’s philosophy and wit that he took him into partnership and this splendid combination of talent started a newspaper.

— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1899

“Auld Saws Speak Truth”

Scottish proverbs:

  • The shortest road’s the nearest.
  • The less wit a man has the less he kens the want o’t.
  • The gude dog doesna aye get the best bane.
  • Sorrow an’ ill weather come unca’d.
  • Silence and thought hurt nae man.
  • Self praise is nae honour.
  • Every bird thinks its ain nest best.
  • He that keeks through a keyhole may see what will vex him.
  • There’s naething mair precious than time.
  • He that lends money to a friend has a double loss.
  • Haste and anger hinder gude counsel.
  • Friends ‘gree best at a distance.
  • Weel done, soon done.
  • Be a friend to yoursel’ and ithers will.
  • A wise man wavers, a fool is fixed.
  • The langest day has an end.

And “There’s naething sae gude on this side o’ time but it micht hae been better.”

(From Colin S.K. Walker, Scottish Proverbs, 2000.)



The “Swiss family Robinson” is not named Robinson. The title of Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel shows the enormous influence of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe even a century after its publication; the 18th century was filled with “Robinsonades” in German, Dutch, French, Danish, Swiss, Swedish, and Italian:

Teutsche Robinson, 1722
Americanische Robinson, 1724
Nordische Robinson, 1741
Hollandsche Robinson, 1743
Dänische Robinson, 1750
Walchersche Robinson, 1752
Maldivschen Philosophen Robine, 1753
Oude en Jongen Robinson, 1753
Isländische Robinson, 1755
Hartz-Robinson, 1755
Robinson vom Berge Libonon, 1755
Haagsche Robinson, 1758
Robertson [sic] aux terres australes, 1766
Steyerische Robinson, 1791
Böhmische Robinson, 1796

Wyss’s marooned Swiss family is nameless.

(Gary Dexter, Why Not Catch-21?, 2007.)

Focus Group

[My brother Michael] remembered that I (then between four and five years old) was greatly concerned with petty consistency as the story unfolded, and that on one occasion I interrupted: ‘Last time, you said Bilbo’s front door was blue, and you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his hood, but you’ve just said that Bilbo’s front door was green and that Thorin’s hood was silver’, at which my father muttered ‘Damn the boy’, and then strode across the room to his desk to make a note.

— Christopher Tolkien, recalling a series of Christmas readings in the late 1920s in which The Hobbit took shape, quoted in Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, 2006