After a day at the races in England, a friend told Mark Twain, “I wish you’d buy me a ticket back to London. I’m broke.”

Twain told him he couldn’t afford two tickets but proposed that his friend sneak aboard the train and hide under Twain’s seat. Then he bought two tickets anyway.

When the train had got under way, the inspector appeared to collect Twain’s ticket. When Twain gave him two, he looked about the compartment and said, “Where’s the other one?”

Twain pointed under his seat, smiled, and said, “My friend is a little eccentric.”

“Today Is Yesterday’s Pupil”

The 17th-century churchman Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) had a gift for pithy maxims:

  • Every horse thinks its own pack heaviest.
  • There is more pleasure in loving than in being beloved.
  • He that has a great nose, thinks everybody is speaking of it.
  • It is more difficult to praise rightly than to blame.
  • Eaten bread is forgotten.
  • A wise man may look ridiculous in the company of fools.
  • Bad excuses are worse than none.
  • A book that is shut is but a block.
  • Custom is the plague of wise men and the idol of fools.
  • A man is not good or bad for one action.
  • Unseasonable kindness gets no thanks.
  • ‘Tis skill, not strength, that governs a ship.
  • Abused patience turns to fury.
  • All things are difficult before they are easy.
  • Poor men’s reasons are not heard.
  • The more wit the less courage.
  • Travel makes a wise man better, and a fool worse.

And “Learning hath gained most by those books by which the printers have lost.” “Wit,” wrote Coleridge, “was the stuff and substance of Fuller’s intellect.”

Little Women

Douglas MacArthur’s mother dressed him in skirts, blouses, and bows and kept his hair in curls until he was 8 years old. Franklin Roosevelt wore shoulder-length blond curls and short skirts, “as he liked to kick and feel free to move about.”

Rainer Maria Rilke’s mother, who had lost a daughter the year before he was born, baptized her son René Maria, dressed him as a girl, and arranged his hair in curls until he was 5.

“I had to wear beautiful long dresses,” he recalled later, “and until I started school I went about like a little girl. I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll.”


Traveling on the same ship, Mark Twain and Chauncey Depew were asked to address the dinner crowd. Twain went first and spoke for 20 minutes to great applause. Then Depew rose.

“Mr. Toastmaster and ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “before this dinner, Mark Twain and I made an agreement to trade speeches. He has just delivered my speech, and I thank you for the pleasant manner in which you received it. I regret to say that I have lost the notes of his speech and cannot remember anything he has to say.” And he sat down, to much laughter.

The next day, an Englishman found Twain in the smoking room. “Mr. Clemens,” he said, “I consider you were much imposed on last night. I have always heard that Mr. Depew is a clever man — but really, that speech of his you made last night struck me as being most infernal rot.”


In the 1970s, Forrest Ackerman sold this story to Vertex for $100:

Cosmic Report Card: Earth

He resold it four times for the same amount, and it’s been translated into three languages.

The “shortest horror story ever written” is usually attributed to Fredric Brown:

The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.

Ron Smith shortened this further by changing knock to lock.

“An Untaught Highlander”

We don’t know much about Angus McDiarmid, except that he’s been called “the world’s worst author.” His 1815 book Striking and Picturesque Delineations of the Grand, Beautiful, Wonderful, and Interesting Scenery Around Loch-Earn is a bewildering mess of bad grammar and obscure language — apparently he composed it in his native Scottish Gaelic and then salted it with impressive words from an English dictionary, without much regard to their parts of speech:

The foresaid high Grampian mountains abounded with spasmodiac opening, or excavated parts, that if a loud cry made at accommodious distant, they would sounded the same in such miraculous manner, that one apt to conceive that each parts of those spasmodiac rocks imbibed the vociferation which is depressing gradually the sonorofic sound to the expiry thereof.

But the high point is the dedication, which William Shepard Walsh calls “as grovelling and abject as the worst example in the very worst periods of authorial servility”:

To the Right Honorable the Earl of Breadalbane. May it please your lordship, with overpowering sentiments of the most profound humility, I prostrate myself at your noble feet, while I offer, to your Lordship’s high consideration, those very feeble attempts to describe the indescribable and ineffable beauties of your Lordship’s delicious estate of Edinample. With tumid emotions of heart-distending pride, and with fervescent feelings of gratitude, I beg leave to acknowledge the honor I have to serve so noble a master, and the many advantages which I, in common with your Lordship’s other menials, enjoy from the exuberance of your princely liberality. That your Lordship may long shine with refulgent brilliancy in the exalted station to which Providence has raised you, and that your noble family, like a bright constellation, may diffuse a splendor and glory through the high sphere of their attraction, is the fervent prayer of your lordship’s most humble and most devoted servant, Angus McDiarmid.

The whole book is here.


“Dear Sir,–I am in a madhouse. I quite forget your name or who you are. You must excuse me, for I have nothing to communicate or tell of, and why I am shut up I don’t know. I have nothing to say, so I remain yours faithfully, JOHN CLARE.”

So wrote John Clare to an inquirer in 1860. At that point he had spent 18 years in a Northamptonshire asylum, after a promising if penurious career as a nature poet. His first volume, in 1820, had been brought out by Keats’ publisher and highly praised, but by 1835 he was descending into alcoholism and mental illness, confusing himself with Byron and Shakespeare and at one point interrupting a performance of The Merchant of Venice to berate Shylock.

Today Clare is ranked among the greatest of 19th-century poets, one whose sensitive nature had become increasingly disjoint as the industrial and agricultural revolutions swept the idyllic English countryside of his youth.

More’s the pity. When completing the paperwork to confine him to the asylum in 1841, Clare’s doctor had considered the question “Was the insanity preceded by any severe or long-continued mental emotion or exertion?” He answered, “After years of poetical prosing.”

Girl Talk

The sun went down like a bale of dull fire, in the midst of smearing clouds of red-currant jam. The wind began to whistle worse than any of the lowest orders of society in a shilling gallery. … The cords of the ship snapped like bad stay-laces. No best Genoa velvet was ever blacker than the firmament, and not even the voices of the ladies calling for the stewardess were heard above the orchestral crashing of the elements.

— Douglas Jerrold, “A Young Lady’s Description of a Storm at Sea,” 1858

Retrieval Error

An English professor was training her students in memorization techniques.

“For instance,” she said, “if you want to remember the name of a certain poet, Bobbie Burns, you could visualize a London policeman in flames.” She drew a picture in chalk. “You see? ‘Bobbie Burns.'”

A student raised his hand and asked, “How could we know that’s not ‘Robert Browning’?”

Risqué Business

In 1969, convinced that anything prurient would sell in the era of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady decided to manufacture his own bestseller. He asked 24 colleagues to write a chapter apiece, following two rules: They had to write badly, and there had to be an “unremitting emphasis on sex”:

In the darkened room, now thirstier than ever, Gillian was suddenly aware of the presence beside her of Mario Vella. He had allowed his left elbow to brush gently against her. In any other surrounding, in any other circumstances, Gillian Blake would have gracefully withdrawn. She didn’t. She held her ground and his elbow became more persistent.

Sadly, McGrady was right. With two sex scenes per chapter, Naked Came the Stranger quickly became a national bestseller, ending the year at number 7 on the fiction charts, five slots behind The Godfather.

“Penelope Ashe’s scorching novel makes Portnoy’s Complaint and Valley of the Dolls read like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” wrote the Long Island Press. And the Asheville, N.C., Citizen-Times said it was “witty and written in good taste, and brings out many new angles in man-woman relationships.”

“These are the kind of people,” McGrady told Life, “who are running around setting literary standards.”