Royal Jelly

“Last night Mr. Creston Clarke played King Lear at the Tabor Grand. All through the five acts of that Shakespearean tragedy he played the King as though under momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace.” — Eugene Field, Denver Tribune, c. 1880

Worldly Wise

Proverbs from around the world:

  • A shroud has no pockets. (Scotland)
  • No one is a blacksmith at birth. (Namibia)
  • The absent always bears the blame. (Netherlands)
  • One cannot make soup out of beauty. (Estonia)
  • Bad is called good when worse happens. (Norway)
  • When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole. (Gambia)
  • Under trees it rains twice. (Switzerland)
  • Everyone is foolish until they buy land. (Ireland)
  • Every head is a world. (Cuba)
  • The only victory over love is flight. (France)
  • Don’t look where you fell, but where you slipped. (Liberia)
  • Many lose when they win, and others win when they lose. (Germany)

And “It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.” (China)


When Polish composer André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in hopes that he might appear as Yorick in a production of Hamlet.

No one felt comfortable fulfilling this wish until David Tennant used the skull in a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008. He continued to use it throughout the production’s West End run and in a later television adaptation.

“André’s skull was a profound memento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide,” said director Gregory Doran. “I hope other productions may, with the greatest respect for André, use the skull as he intended it to be used, for precisely this purpose.”

(Thanks, Pål.)

Memorable Dedications

By Franklin Pierce Adams, in Overset, 1922:

Herbert Bayard Swope
without whose friendly
aid and counsel every
line in this book was

By E. Greenly, in The Earth, Its Nature and History, 1927:

To the memory of
my wife Annie
the last act of whose life was to
re-read critically the manuscript
of this book.

By Francis Hackett, in The Invisible Censor, 1921:

my wife
Signe Toksvig
whose lack of interest
in this book has been my
constant desperation.

By Benjamin Disraeli, in Vivian Grey, 1826:

The Best and Greatest of Men
I dedicate these volumes.
He for whom it was intended will accept and
appreciate the compliment;
Those for whom it was not intended will —
do the same.

By John Burroughs, in Bird and Bough, 1906:

the kinglet
that sang in my evergreens in October and
made me think it was May.

By Jerome K. Jerome, in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886:

To the very dear and well beloved Friend of my prosperous and evil days. — To the friend, who, though in the early stages of our acquaintanceship, he did ofttimes disagree with me, has since come to be my very warmest comrade. To the friend who, however often I may put him out, never (now) upsets me in revenge. To the friend who, treated with marked coldness by all the female members of my household, and regarded with suspicion by my very dog, nevertheless, seems day by day to be more drawn by me, and in return, to more and more impregnate me with the odour of his friendship. To the friend who never tells me of my faults, never wants to borrow money, and never talks about himself. To the companion of my idle hours, the soother of my sorrows, the confidant of my joys and hopes, my oldest and strongest Pipe, this little volume is gratefully and affectionately dedicated.

Authorial Distaste

  • Kingsley Amis on Dylan Thomas, 1947: “I have got to the stage now with mr toss that I have only reached with Chaucer and Dryden, not even with Milton, that of VIOLENTLY WISHING that the man WERE IN FRONT OF ME, so that I could be DEMONIACALLY RUDE to him about his GONORRHEIC RUBBISH, and end up by WALKING ON HIS FACE and PUNCHING HIS PRIVY PARTS.”
  • Mark Twain on Jane Austen, 1898: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
  • Byron on Keats, 1820: “No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the driveling idiotism of the Mankin.”
  • Virginia Woolf on D.H. Lawrence, 1932: “English has one million words: why confine yourself to six?”
  • Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, 1973: “He would not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.”

In reviewing Tom Wolfe’s 742-page A Man in Full in the New York Review of Books in 1998, Norman Mailer wrote: “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s all over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.”

Presumption Rewarded

Sinclair Lewis received this letter from a lawyer in a Midwestern city:

Dear Lewis:

Have read a few of your works and would like to ask a few favors. Please send me a list of your stories, your autograph, picture, and a letter describing your life. How many children have you and their names.

Thanking you, I am

Yours very truly,

J.J. Jones, Esq.

He responded:

My Dear Jim:

There was only one thing about your nice letter that I didn’t like. It was so sort of formal. True, we have never met, and somehow I feel we aren’t likely to, but, isn’t this a democratic country? So let me call you Jim, and you call me Fatty, or any other friendly name.

Now Jim, I haven’t got a photograph of me here, but I’ll go right down to the junction and have one taken. I’m preparing a letter about my life, but it’s been a pretty long one and a bad one, and that will take me several weeks.

But in the meantime, Jim, I’m awfully interested in lawyers. Kindly send me your picture, picture of your home and office, a list of your assets and liabilities, average income per month, list of the books you have read since 1914, if any. Kindly inform me whether you have ever defended a bootlegger and why. Should be glad to have any other interesting personal information for use in a story. How do you get along with your wife? Kindly explain this in detail.

Thanking you in advance, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Sinclair Lewis

The Northanger Horrid Novels

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe recommends seven Gothic novels to Catherine Morland:

‘Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.’

‘Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?’

‘I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.’

‘Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?’

‘Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.’

For a century it was assumed that Jane Austen had invented these titles, but then Montague Summers and Michael Sadleir discovered they were actual novels. Here’s an excerpt from Horrid Mysteries, which is certainly well named:

‘Thank God, Countess,’ one of them began, ‘that you have been rescued from the cruel hands of that barbarian, and are now in the company of more humane beings!’

‘From what cruel hands?’ I replied, with astonishment.

‘From those of your pretended lover, the Marquis Carlos of G******.’

‘Be silent, vile reptile,’ I exclaimed, ‘and dare not to asperse the name of a man whom I adore!’

Ironically, Austen’s parody may have rescued these titles from an oblivion they otherwise deserved. Announcing his discovery in a 1927 article, Sadleir wrote, “So long as Jane Austen is read — which will be for at least as long as there are readers at all — [these novels] will survive as tiny stitches in the immense tapestry of English literature.”


  • Asked to invent the perfect bestselling title, Bennett Cerf suggested Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.
  • The two most common birthdates for Nobel laureates are May 21 and February 28 (seven apiece).
  • ALASKA is the only U.S. state name that can be typed on a single row of keys on a standard typewriter.
  • 13177388 = 71 + 73 + 71 + 77 + 77 + 73 + 78 + 78
  • “I don’t know much about medicine, but I know what I like.” — S.J. Perelman

Drawing Blanks

In 2002, Russian magnate Vladimir O. Potanin paid $1 million for Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square. “‘All paintings are pictures’ would have been a strong candidate for a necessary truth until Malevich proved it false,” wrote Arthur Danto of the inscrutable black canvas. Malevich himself had said, “It is not painting; it is something else.”

In The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman guides his party across the Ocean with “a map they could all understand”:

“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best —
A perfect and absolute blank!”

While an architecture student at Cornell in the 1920s, practical joker Hugh Troy was given 48 hours to render “a conception of what a brightly floodlighted hydroelectric plant might look like at night.” “Though Hugh was overloaded with other work, he got his drawing in on time,” remembered classmate Don Hershey. He called it Hydroelectric Plant at Night (Fuse Blown):

troy hydroelectric plant

In 1967 British artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin produced a “map of itself,” a “map of an area of dimensions 12″ x 12″ indicating 2,304 1/4″ squares”:

map of itself

Katharine Harmon, in The Map as Art, writes that this is one of a series of maps “revealing only what they wished to show and jettisoning the rest — drawing attention to what cartographers have always done.”

(Thanks, Tristram.)