Samuel Johnson’s 1759 novel Rasselas contains a remarkable passage — he anticipates the airplane by nearly 150 years:

He that can swim needs not despair to fly; to swim is to fly in a grosser fluid, and to fly is to swim in a subtler: We are only to proportion our power of resistance to the different density of the matter through which we are to pass: You will be necessarily upborne by the air, if you can renew any impulse upon it, faster than the air can recede from the pressure.

“As a basic claim for a modern patent, the statement could not be broader nor more comprehensive,” wrote a correspondent to U.S. Air Service in 1920. “It only required the modern high-powered internal combustion engine to render his claim effective.”

Short Subjects

When PLAFSEP magazine asked its readers to nominate the silliest library subject heading, the hands-down winner was BUTTOCKS (IN RELIGION, FOLK-LORE, ETC.). Other highlights, gathered by columnist John R. Likins:


That’s from Likins’ article “Subject Headings, Silly, American–20th Century–Complications and Sequelae–Addresses, Essays, Lectures,” in Technical Services Quarterly, vol. 2, no. 1/2, Fall/Winter 1984, using data from the Library of Congress and Cataloging in Publication. In The Library at Night (2006), Alberto Manguel gives these:

Banana research
Bat binding
Boots and shoes in art
Chickens in religion and folklore
Sewage: collected works
Sex: cause and determination
Tic: see also toc

And the Whole Library Handbook (1991) offers these, collected by the Library of Congress Professional Association:

Adult children
Beehives; see Bee–Housing
Diving for men
Drug abuse — Programmed instruction
Feet in the Bible
Hand — Surgery — Juvenile literature
Lord’s Supper — Reservation
Low German wit and humor
Monotone operators
Running races in rabbinical literature
Standing on one foot; see One-leg resting position
Stupidity; see Inefficiency, Intellectual

I think some of these may now be out of date, but there’s certainly no shortage of curious headings — in doing research for this site I recently ran across “Raccoon — Biography.”


Image: Wikimedia Commons

“If scientific theories are correct it is more of an honor to lose at chess than win,” mused Edgar Rice Burroughs in his diary on Jan. 3, 1921. “I do not recall ever having lost a chess game — though I have played but few times.”

Perhaps inspired, he invented a Martian variant of the game, Jetan, for his novel The Chessmen of Mars, published the following spring. Played with alien pieces on a 10×10 board, the game underlies a climactic scene in which living players fight to the death on an oversize board.

A few months after the novel’s appearance, Burroughs received a letter from Elston B. Sweet, a convict at Leavenworth, who with a fellow prisoner had carved a full set of pieces for Jetan. “We have not only played dozens of games between us,” he wrote, “but have succeeded in making the game a favorite among several other prisoners.” When other readers expressed similar interest, Burroughs summarized the rules of the game in an appendix to the novel.

In a 1968 collection of chess variations, John Gollon praises Jetan as “quite good — very playable and entertaining.” He includes this sample game between himself (orange) and J. Miller (black):

1. (T) A2-B4 (T)A9-B7
2. (W) A1-A3 (W) A10-A8
3. (Pd) B1-B3 (Pd) B10-B8
4. (Pa) C2-D3 (Pa) C9-D8
5. (D) C1-C4 (D) C10-C7
6. (O) G1-D4 (O) G10-D7
7. (D) C4-C7X (D) (Pa)D8-C7X (D)
8. (Pa) B3-D5 (O) D7-G8
9. (Pa) D5-B7X (T) (Pa) C7-B7X (Pd)
10. (O) D4-G5 (Pa) F7-F8
11. (Pa) H2-G3 (Pa) H9-I8
12. (D) H1-H4 (D) H10-H7
13. (Pd) I1-I3 (Pa) I7-J8
14. (T) J2-I4 (C) F10-F7
15. (D) H4-H7X (D) (Pa) I8-H7X (D)
16. (Pa) E2-E3 (O) D10-G7
17. (Pd) I3-I5 (O) G7-D6
18. (O) D1-E4 (O) D6-G5X (O)
19. (T) I4-G5X (O) (C) F7-I5X (Pd)
20. (Pa) G3-G4 (C) I5-I2X (Pa)
21. (P) F1-C1 (C) I2-J1X (W)
22. (T) G5-H7X (Pa) (O) G8-H7X (T)
23. (O) E4-H7X (O) (P) E10-C9
24. (O) H7-I10X (Pd) (T) I9-I7
25. (C) E1-E4 (W) J10-I9
26. (C) E4-D7 (P) C9-F1
27. (C) D7-F4

“Black’s Princess ‘escaped’ into certain capture — no matter where she moves, she will be taken.”

Double Act


In October 1885 Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife woke him out of a troubled sleep, and he cried, “O, why did you wake me? I was dreaming such a fine bogey tale.”

“One man was being pressed into a cabinet, when he swallowed a drug and changed into another being,” he told an interviewer later. “I awoke and said at once that I had found the missing link for which I had been looking so long, and before I again went to sleep, almost every detail of the story, as it stands, was clear to me.”

He wrote out the tale in three days and presented it to his wife, who said he had overlooked the allegory at the heart of the idea. He grew angry, paced his room, and reappeared. “You are right,” he said. “I have absolutely missed the allegory, which after all is the whole point of it.” He threw the manuscript into the fire and spent another three days rewriting it. In all he wrote 64,000 words in six days.

As he crossed to the United States in September 1887, he had an early intimation of the book’s fame: The ill-tempered pilot of his boat had been nicknamed Hyde, and his better-natured partner was called Jekyll.

Things to Come


DR. GALL: You see, so many Robots are being manufactured that people are becoming superfluous; man is really a survival. But that he should begin to die out, after a paltry thirty years of competition! That’s the awful part of it. You might think that nature was offended at the manufacture of the Robots. All the universities are sending in long petitions to restrict their production. Otherwise, they say, mankind will become extinct through lack of fertility. But the R.U.R. shareholders, of course, won’t hear of it. All the governments, on the other hand, are clamoring for an increase in production, to raise the standards of their armies. And all the manufacturers in the world are ordering Robots like mad.

HELENA: And has no one demanded that the manufacture should cease altogether?

DR. GALL: No one has the courage.

HELENA: Courage!

DR. GALL: People would stone him to death. You see, after all, it’s more convenient to get your work done by the Robots.

HELENA: Oh, Doctor, what’s going to become of people?

DR. GALL: God knows, Madame Helena, it looks to us scientists like the end!

— From Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R.U.R., which introduced the word robot

Paper Fight

Most mutilated journals in the library of the University of Nebraska, Omaha, September 1982-May 1983:

  1. Personnel Psychology
  2. Journal of Conflict Resolution
  3. Journal of Politics
  4. Judicature
  5. Education and Urban Society
  6. ASCE Journal of Hydraulics
  7. Phylon
  8. Journal of Humanistic Philosophy
  9. Journal of Marriage and the Family
  10. Journal of Experimental Psychology

(“Saving and Securing Library Materials,” American Libraries, November 1983, p. 651.)

Archy and Mehitabel


In 1916, New York Sun columnist Don Marquis told his readers an unlikely story: He had arrived early at work to discover a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys of his typewriter.

“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Marquis wrote. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another.” The result was poetry:

expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life …

there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay

In the years that followed, the sensitive cockroach helped Marquis fill hundreds of pages with wry and sometimes trenchant social commentary:

as i was crawling
through the holes in
a swiss cheese
the other
day it occurred to
me to wonder
what a swiss cheese
would think if
a swiss cheese
could think and after
cogitating for some
time i said to myself
if a swiss cheese
could think
it would think that
a swiss cheese
was the most important
thing in the world
just as everything that
can think at all
does think about itself


a good many
failures are happy
because they dont
realize it many a
cockroach believes
himself as beautiful
as a butterfly
have a heart o have
a heart and
let them dream on

It’s not clear what inspired Marquis to create such an unlikely pair of characters, but his friend Christopher Morley offered one idea. “I remember that in the early days of the ‘Sun Dial,’ when the paper moved from Park Row to Nassau Street, Don’s typewriter desk got lost in the skirmish; so for some years he rattled out his daily stint with his machine perched on an up-ended packing case. This box had stenciled on it the statement 1 GROSS TOM CAT, which meant Tomato Catsup, but became by legend the first suggestion of mehitabel.”

Inner Space


In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.

Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:

Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.

Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.


William Bliss’ 1949 book The Real Shakespeare concludes with a “Shakespeare examination paper for reasonably advanced students.” It includes this question:

5. What character (and in what play) has the shortest part; appears only once (and that in a stage direction); and says nothing — and yet is essential to the plot?

I thought this might make a good puzzle — but I don’t know the answer! Bliss withholds his, and despite a lot of fumbling research I can’t find a significant player in Shakespeare who says nothing at all. Maybe the bear in The Winter’s Tale? I’ll leave it here as an open-ended riddle.

UPDATE: In the messages I’ve received, the most popular candidate is Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth. Banquo appears alive and speaks early in the play, but Macbeth has him murdered in Act III and his ghost haunts Macbeth silently thereafter, plaguing his conscience. In the stage directions, the ghost is called “Ghost of Banquo,” so arguably this is a distinct character.

09/13/2013 Another possibility: the corpse of Henry VI in Richard III. He appears once, carried in a coffin while Richard woos the mourning Lady Anne; he certainly says nothing; and his death and the victory of the Yorkists set off the events of the play. (Thanks, Josh.)

08/18/2015 An even better guess: Elizabeth I appears once, says nothing, and is onstage for less than 100 lines in Act V, Scene V of Henry VIII:

All the expected good we’re like to hear
For this play at this time, is only in
The merciful construction of good women;
For such a one we show’d ’em …

(Thanks, Joe.)

The Best Masters


Finally, consider what delightful teaching there is in books. How easily, how secretly, how safely in books do we make bare without shame the poverty of human ignorance! These are the masters that instruct us without rod and ferrule, without words of anger, without payment of money or clothing. Should ye approach them, they are not asleep; if ye seek to question them, they do not hide themselves; should ye err, they do not chide; and should ye show ignorance, they know not how to laugh. O Books! ye alone are free and liberal. Ye give to all that seek, and set free all that serve you zealously. By what thousands of things are ye figuratively recommended to learned men in the Scripture given us by Divine inspiration!

— Richard de Bury, Philobiblon, 1344