Free Thinking

Arthur Conan Doyle in Tit-Bits, Dec. 15, 1900:

There is one fact in connection with Holmes which will probably interest those who have followed his career from the beginning, and to which, so far as I am aware, attention has never been drawn. In dealing with criminal subjects one’s natural endeavour is to keep the crime in the background. In nearly half the number of the Sherlock Holmes stories, however, in a strictly legal sense no crime was actually committed at all. One heard a good deal about crime and the criminal, but the reader was completely bluffed. Of course, I could not bluff him always, so sometimes I had to give him a crime, and occasionally I had to make it a downright bad one.

A footnote from Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2005:

Fletcher Pratt computes that by 1914, when the record of Holmes’s detective activities ceases, no crimes had taken place in one quarter of the total published cases. In nine of these cases, there was no legal crime. In six no crime took place because Holmes intervened in time to prevent its occurrence.

In a Word

n. a bookseller

adj. slow; tardy; dilatory; causing delay

n. an inquisitive person

adv. from elsewhere; from another source

[Edmund Law] had a book printed at Carlisle; they were a long time about it: he sent several times to hasten them; at last he called himself to know the reason of the delay. ‘Why does not my book make its appearance?’ said he to the printer. ‘My Lord, I am extremely sorry; but we have been obliged to send to Glasgow for a pound of parentheses.’

— Henry Colburn, Personal and Literary Memorials, 1829

Stairs of Knowledge

balamand stairs of knowledge

This staircase near the library at Lebanon’s University of Balamand is painted to resemble a stack of classic texts:

The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Republic of Plato
Diwān Abū al-Tayyib al-Mutanbbī
Risālat al-ghufrān / Abī al-Alā al-Ma’arrī
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Muqaddimah-i ibn Khaldūn
The Prince and the Discourses by Niccolò Machiavelli
Discourse on Method by René Descartes
The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
Faust by Goethe
The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
The Meaning of Relativity by Albert Einstein
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
al-Ayyām / Tāhā Husayn
A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee
Cosmos by Carl Sagan
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Les Désorientés by Amin Maalouf
The Road Ahead by Bill Gates

This puts them (almost) in chronological order.

A Moveable Feast

When does Sherlock Holmes eat breakfast?

  • In A Study in Scarlet we are told that Holmes “had invariably breakfasted and gone out” before Watson rose in the morning.
  • But just over a year later, in early April 1883, Watson describes himself as “regular in my habits” and says Holmes is “a late riser as a rule.”
  • In 1889, in “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb,” Watson receives a visitor just before 7 a.m. and takes him to visit Holmes, remarking that they will “just be in time to have a little breakfast with him.”
  • In The Hound of the Baskervilles Holmes is “usually very late in the mornings.”
  • In “The Adventure of Black Peter” Inspector Stanley Hopkins is invited to breakfast at 9:30 a.m.
  • In The Valley of Fear Holmes is found sitting before “his untasted breakfast” at about 10.
  • In “The Five Orange Pips” “Sherlock Holmes was already at breakfast when I came down.”
  • In “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” the two breakfast together.
  • In “The Problem of Thor Bridge” Watson descends to breakfast with his friend and finds “that he had nearly finished his meal, and that his mood was particularly bright and joyous.”

In Sherlock Holmes Detected, Ian McQueen writes, “There are so many contradictions about breakfast-time that one hesitates to express a certain view; save possibly one, that Watson, ready as always to submit to his very human failings, was not very good at getting up in the mornings.” He quotes Ronald Knox: “Both in A Study in Scarlet and in The Adventures, we hear that Watson breakfasted after Holmes: in The Hound we are told that Holmes breakfasted late. But then, the true inference from this is that Watson breakfasted very late indeed.”

By the time of Holmes’ retirement, McQueen notes, Watson pays Holmes no more than “an occasional week-end visit,” since the detective now takes only an “early cup of tea” and favors clifftop walks and sea-bathing before breakfast. “Watson kept out of the way!”

Short Work

Samuel Johnson used to boast that his memory was so prodigious that he could recite an entire chapter of Niels Horrebow’s 1758 Natural History of Iceland. When challenged he would declaim:

Chap. LXXII. Concerning Snakes

There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.

That’s it. Editor George Birkbeck Hill adds, “Chapter XLII is still shorter:–

Concerning Owls.

There are no owls of any kind in the whole island.

The Size of It
Image: Wikimedia Commons

During World War II the poet Robert Lowell refused to register for the draft and spent a few days in the West Street Jail next to mobster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter.

Lepke told him, “I’m in for killing. What are you in for?”

Lowell said, “I’m in for refusing to kill.”


On Sept. 21, 1849, naturalist and explorer Philip Henry Gosse wrote in his diary:

E. delivered of a son. Received green swallow from Jamaica.

The son grew up to be poet, author, and critic Edmund Gosse, who wrote:

“This entry has caused amusement, as showing that he was as much interested in the bird as in the boy. But this does not follow; what the wording exemplifies is my Father’s extreme punctilio.

“The green swallow arrived later in the day than the son, and the earlier visitor was therefore recorded first; my Father was scrupulous in every species of arrangement.”

Intellectual Property,_21_May_1988.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1973 Anthony Burgess lost a book manuscript to a scippatore, a thief on a Vespa.

He was living in Rome and working on Joysprick, his study of the language in Finnegans Wake. “I carried it in its Gucci case towards a Xeroxshop to be copied, but it was scippato on the way.”

He was remarkably philosophical about the loss. “The typescript was presumably fluttered into the Tiber or Tevere and the case sold for a few thousand lire. I had to write the book again, not with too much resentment: it was probably better the second time.”

“These scippatori were never caught by the police, who probably shared in their proceeds: their little motorcycles were not legally obliged to be fitted with a targa or numberplate. Petty crime is excused, or even exalted, by the greater crimes of the Quirinale.”

(From Burgess’ memoir You’ve Had Your Time, 1990.)

Short Work

Then God said, Let there be light! And the light came. And God saw the light, and it pleased him, and he gave it the name of Day. And when the day was gone, and the dark came back to stay for a while, he gave the dark spell the name of Night. And God did these things on the first day.

— Josephine Pollard, History of the Old Testament in Words of One Syllable, 1888

04/20/2018 UPDATE: Much later, in 1994, MIT logician George Boolos summarized Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem in words of one syllable. (Thanks, Ethan.)


On Wednesday, July 6, he was engaged to sup with me at my lodgings in Downing-street, Westminster. But on the preceding night my landlord having behaved very rudely to me and some company who were with me, I had resolved not to remain another night in his house. I was exceedingly uneasy at the awkward appearance I supposed I should make to Johnson and the other gentlemen whom I had invited, not being able to receive them at home, and being obliged to order supper at the Mitre. I went to Johnson in the morning, and talked of it as a serious distress. He laughed, and said, ‘Consider, Sir, how insignificant this will appear a twelvemonth hence.’–Were this consideration to be applied to most of the little vexatious incidents of life, by which our quiet is too often disturbed, it would prevent many painful sensations. I have tried it frequently, with good effect. ‘There is nothing (continued he) in this mighty misfortune; nay, we shall be better at the Mitre.’

— James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791