The Gentle Cynic

More maxims of Rochefoucauld:

  • “Before we passionately wish for anything, we should examine into the happiness of its possessor.”
  • “Were we perfectly acquainted with any object, we should never passionately desire it.”
  • “It is easier to appear worthy of the employments we are not possessed of, than of those we are.”
  • “Those who endeavor to imitate us we like much better than those who endeavor to equal us. Imitation is a sign of esteem but competition of envy.”
  • “We are often more agreeable through our faults than through our good qualities.”
  • “We easily excuse in our friends those faults that do not affect us.”
  • “None are either so happy or so unhappy as they imagine.”
  • “Censorious as the world is, it oftener does favor to false merit than injustice to true.”
  • “Absence destroys small passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes tapers, and kindles fires.”
  • “We never desire ardently what we desire rationally.”
  • “Our self-love bears with less patience the condemnation of our taste than of our opinion.”

And “Why have we memory sufficient to retain the minutest circumstances that have happened to us; and yet not enough to remember how often we have related them to the same person?”

The Specialty Shelf

Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes has won the 2009 Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year, with 42 percent of the vote. Other contenders:

  • Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter
  • An Intellectual History of Cannibalism
  • Father Christmas Needs a Wee!
  • What Kind of Bean Is This Chihuahua?
  • Collectible Spoons of the Third Reich
  • Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots
  • The Changing World of Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • I Stopped Sucking My Thumb … Why Can’t You Stop Drinking?

The winning book informs readers how to “crochet models of the hyperbolic plane, pseudosphere, and catenoid/helicoids” and explores geometry and the history of crochet. “It defended its poll-topping position despite strong support for the spoon-carrying Third Reich, once again attempting to muscle in on someone else’s territory,” said prize custodian Horace Bent. “But the public proclivity towards non-Euclidean needlework proved too great for the Third Reich to overcome. If only someone had let the Poles know in ’39.”

Some past winners.

Noble Wisdom

Maxims of Rochefoucauld:

  • “Few men are able to know all the ill they do.”
  • “We are never made so ridiculous by the qualities we have, as by those we affect to have.”
  • “In every profession, every individual affects to appear what he would willingly be esteemed; so that we may say, the world is composed of nothing but appearances.”
  • “We like better to see those on whom we confer benefits, than those from whom we receive them.”
  • “Everybody takes pleasure in returning small obligations; many go so far as to acknowledge moderate ones; but there is hardly any one who does not repay great obligations with ingratitude.”
  • “In misfortunes we often mistake dejection for constancy; we bear them without daring to look on them, as cowards suffer themselves to be killed without resistance.”
  • “None but the contemptible are apprehensive of contempt.”
  • “We want strength to act up to our reason.”
  • “We easily forget crimes that are known only to ourselves.”
  • “It is as easy to deceive ourselves without our perceiving it, as it is difficult to deceive others without their perceiving it.”
  • “We are sometimes less unhappy in being deceived than in being undeceived by those we love.”

And “Those who apply themselves too much to little things commonly become incapable of great ones.”

Sensual Gardening

While Tess of the d’Urbervilles was being serialized in the Graphic in 1891, Thomas Hardy’s editor objected to the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her three dairymaid companions across a flooded lane. In the interests of propriety, the editor suggested that Angel use a wheelbarrow instead.

Hardy “carried out this unceremonious concession to conventionality with cynical amusement”:

‘Are you trying to get to church?’ he said to Marian, who was in front, including the next two in his remark, but avoiding Tess.

‘Yes, sir; and ’tis getting late; and my colour do come up so –‘

‘I’ll wheel you through the pool — all of you — with pleasure, you’ll wait till I get a barrow.’

The whole four flushed as if one heart beat through them.

‘I think you can’t, sir,’ said Marian.

‘It is the only way for you to get past, and there’s a barrow in that shed yonder.’ In a minute or two he had fetched the wheelbarrow and rolled it till it stood beneath them. ‘Now, Marian, attend,’ he continued, ‘and sit upon the top, and put your arms round my shoulders, so; or you’ll fall off. Now! Hold on. That’s well done.’

Hardy also had to remove the seduction scene and the christening of Tess’ illegitimate infant. The whole exercise was rather pointless — the “offensive” passages were restored in the first book edition that November.

Borrowed Thunder

Two letters written by Mark Twain in 1907:

To the New York Times:

Sir to you, I would like to know what kind of a goddam govment this is that discriminates between two common carriers and makes a goddam railroad charge everybody equal & lets a goddam man charge any goddam price he wants to for his goddam opera box.

W.D. Howells
Tuxedo Park Oct 4

To William Dean Howells:

Howells it is an outrage the way the govment is acting so I sent this complaint to N. Y. Times with your name signed because it would have more weight.


He wrote elsewhere: “When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

Free Falling

Published in 1869, Edward Everett Hale’s story “The Brick Moon” described the launch of an artificial satellite nearly a century before Sputnik:

If from the surface of the earth, by a gigantic peashooter, you could shoot a pea upward from Greenwich, aimed northward as well as upward; if you drove it so fast and far that when its power of ascent was exhausted, and it began to fall, it should clear the earth, and pass outside the North Pole; if you had given it sufficient power to get it half round the earth without touching, that pea would clear the earth forever. It would continue to rotate above the North Pole, above the Feejee Island place, above the South Pole and Greenwich, forever, with the impulse with which it had first cleared our atmosphere and attraction. If only we could see that pea as it revolved in that convenient orbit, then we could measure the longitude from that, as soon as we knew how high the orbit was, as well as if it were the ring of Saturn.

Because the 200-foot brick sphere is accidentally launched with human occupants, Hale perhaps also deserves credit for anticipating the space station.

Lost and Found

Charles Dickens, during one of his visits to Paris, had his watch stolen from him at the theatre. This watch had been given to him by the Queen, and was, therefore, very much prized by him. On returning to his hotel, Dickens found a small parcel waiting him, to which was pinned the following note:–

Sir,–I hope you will excuse me, but I assure you I thought I was dealing with a Frenchman and not a countryman. Finding out my mistake, I hasten to repair it as much as lies in my power, by returning you herewith the watch I stole from you. I beg you to accept the homage of my respect, and to believe me, my dear countryman, your humble and obedient servant,


The Dickensian, September 1906

The Consensus

Mrs. H.A. Deming spent a year assembling lines from 38 English and American poets into this mosaic verse, published originally in the San Francisco Times in the 19th century:


Why all this toil for triumphs of an hour? [Young]
Life’s a short summer–man is but a flower. [Dr. Johnson]
By turns we catch the fatal breath and die; [Pope]
The cradle and the tomb, alas! how nigh. [Prior]
To be better far than not to be, [Sewell]
Though all man’s life may seem a tragedy; [Spencer]
But light cares speak when mighty griefs are dumb– [Daniel]
The bottom is but shallow whence they come. [Sir Walter Raleigh]
Thy fate is the common fate of all; [Longfellow]
Unmingled joys here no man befall; [Southwell]
Nature to each allots his proper sphere, [Congreve]
Fortune makes folly her peculiar care. [Churchill]
Custom does often reason overrule, [Rochester]
And throw a cruel sunshine on a fool. [Armstrong]
Live well; how long or short permit to Heaven. [Milton]
They who forgive most shall be most forgiven. [Bailey]
Sin may be clasped so close we cannot see its face– [French]
Vile intercourse where virtue has no place; [Somerville]
Then keep each passion down, however dear, [Thompson]
Thou pendulum betwixt a smile and tear. [Byron]
Her sensual snares let faithless pleasure lay, [Smollett]
With craft and skill to ruin and betray; [Crabbe]
Soar not too high to fall, but stoop to rise; [Massinger]
We masters grow of all that we despise. [Crowley]
Oh, then, renounce that impious self-esteem. [Beattie]
Riches have wings and grandeur is a dream. [Cowper]
Think not ambition wise because ’tis brave, [Sir William Davenant]
The paths of glory lead but to the grave; [Gray]
What is ambition? ‘Tis a glorious cheat, [Wills]
Only destructive to the brave and great. [Addison]
What’s all the gaudy glitter of a crown? [Dryden]
The way to bliss lies not on beds of down. [Francis Quarles]
How long we live, not years, but actions tell; [Watkins]
That man lives twice who lives the first life well. [Herrick]
Make, then, while yet ye may, your God your friend, [William Mason]
Whom Christians worship, yet not comprehend. [Hill]
The trust that’s given guard, and to yourself be just, [Dana]
For live we how we may, yet die we must. [Shakespeare]

The Grabber

In his early days as a news reporter, James Thurber’s editor told him to “write dramatic, buttonholing leads to your stories.”

So, typing up a murder case, Thurber wrote:

“Dead. That’s what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4 p.m. in front of Riley’s Saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th Streets.”

The same thing can happen at the end of a news career.

Everybody’s a Comedian

In the ‘Old India House’ may still be seen a quarto volume of Interest Tables, on the fly-leaf of which is written, in Charles Lamb’s round, clerkly hand,–
‘A book of much interest.’–Edinburgh Review
‘A work in which the interest never flags.’–Quarterly Review
‘We may say of this volume, that the interest increases from the beginning to the end.’–Monthly Review

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890