Sunday, April 29, 2007


Pigeons Nearly Derail Entire 19th Century

Today's Times of London notes an interesting item in the Murray archive: a letter from an early Origin of Species manuscript reader giving a thumbs-down on the book:

The near-miss was unearthed in 150-year-old correspondence between Darwin’s publisher, John Murray, and a clergyman, the Rev Whitwell Elwin. Elwin was one of Murray’s special advisers, part of a literary panel that was the Victorian equivalent of a modern focus group.... Writing back from his rectory in Norwich on May 3, 1859, he urged Murray not to publish. Darwin’s theories were so farfetched, prejudiced and badly argued that right-thinking members of the public would never believe them, he said....

He suggested that Darwin’s earlier observations on pigeons should be made into a book as “everybody is interested in pigeons”. He enthused: “The book would be received in every journal in the kingdom and would soon be on every table.”

Not noted in the article is the wonderful Darwin Correspondence Online Database by Cambridge U, featuring a fully searchable 14,500 letters. I used it, among other places, in researching The Trouble With Tom. (Paine's skull, it turned out, resided at a neighbor's house for many years.)

And sure enough, Elwin turns up in there. On May 9 1859, Darwin wrote to his publisher:

As I have thought you perhaps might like to forward the enclosed note to M r Elwyn I have written it separately.

It is my deliberate conviction that both Lyells & M r Elwyns suggestions, (which differ to a certain extent) are impracticable. I have done my best. Others might, I have no doubt, done the job better, if they had my materials; but that is no help.— Nothing on earth can have been kinder than both M r Elwyn & Sir C. Lyell have been.—

Ah, the very model of a polite brush-off.



Machine Translation...

Or Faulkner?

Or Bulwer-Lytton?

Or James Whitcomb Riley?

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Crush! I am Crushing Your Headline!

Well, after a spell away -- research in London beckoned! -- I am back to find this great Ed Park piece on Harry Stephen Keeler's attempt to swipe the poetry of Edna St. Millay.

Meanwhile, over at Caleb Crain's blog, a fascinating new post comparing the order in which states outlawed slavery to the order in which they are legalizing gay civil unions.

At Slate, the courtroom transcript of the week from the Phil Spector trial. Arresting LAPD officer Derek Gilliam is on the stand:
Gilliam is the nephew of Terry Gilliam, the noted film director and former member of Monty Python. Gilliam told Spector this after Spector mentioned his association with [Python producer] George Harrison.

Q: How did he respond to your comment that your uncle was a famous person associated with Monty Python?

A: He called me a liar.

Q: And how did you respond to that?

A: I said, "I have no reason to lie to you."

Q: How did he respond when you told him that?

A: He said that he dealt with officers that have made those claims before.

And finally, thanks to the Oregonian, an industrial crushing and shredding company that runs a "Shred of the Month" video gallery. This month: torpedoes.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


Hey Portlanders....

I am, alas, too insanely busy to blog this week.

But here's a quick-heads up to those in Portland: I'm reading at 7 pm at Portland State University this Tuesday, and will read for the first time from my work-in-progress The Book of William.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


If Joshua Bell went incognito with his Strad...

...and busked during rush hour in a DC Metro station, would anyone realize it?

Today's Washington Post talked him into finding out....

(tip of the hat to Nat Weinham for this!)


The Lightning That Failed

In the latest issue of New Scientist I have an article on the now-obscure 19th century "lightning calculator" Zerah Colburn:

Zerah Colburn was not exactly the reigning intellect of Cabot, Vermont. Still only five years old, and with just six weeks' schooling, he had not yet learned to read either letters or numbers. Left to amuse himself in his father's carpentry workshop one day in August 1810, he was playing among the wood shavings when his father Abia heard a most unexpected childish prattle. "5 times 7 are 35," Zerah muttered to himself. "6 times 8 are 48." Zerah continued to run through multiplication tables while his father listened in astonishment. What, Abia finally asked the child, was 13 times 97? "1261," the boy answered without hesitation....

His father -- the original stage-dad -- abandoned the rest of the family to take the boy on a permanent European prodigy/mathematical freak-show tour, where the boy distinguished himself by finding an error in a Fermat number. But with his father's schemes eventually exhausting the patience of patrons like John Quincy Adams, Washington Irving, and Humphry Davy, a teenaged Colburn improbably found himself playing the lead in Richard III in a touring theatrical troupe in Ireland.

It's a strange, strange story, and all the stranger in that decades later Colburn eventually did return to the US -- where his own mother no longer even recognized him -- and actually did write a memoir in 1833, long after he'd been ignored by the public. To my knowledge, the self-published Memoir of Zerah Colburn is the first memoir ever written by a child act -- or by a math prodigy, for that matter. It's been out of print ever since.

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Alice in Bulgarialand

I stumbled across this curiouser and curiouser article by Victor Sonkin in a recent Moscow Times about the 1967 Soviet translation of Alice of Wonderland:

An official responsible for non-Soviet socialist literature was leafing through the list of books recently published in the countries of the "people's democracy," as the Eastern European satellite states were called back then, when he stumbled upon the Bulgarian publication of a book about a girl called Alice. Thinking it was a Bulgarian book, he ordered a Russian translation to be done and published in Sofia for future importing into the Soviet Union (this was a standard procedure for such publications, which were sponsored by Soviet money). The Bulgarians were surprised, and it took some effort and persuading to find someone to translate the book from English and not from Bulgarian....

"After the publication, I had to collect my fee at the central bank in Sofia, and the director could not understand why I was getting Bulgarian levs for translating an English book into Russian," [says translator Nina Demurvora]. "He was shocked I didn't speak any Bulgarian."

The dark-blue book with a key on its cover was coveted by everyone, and its black-market price amounted to an engineer's monthly salary. When I was 10, I spent several months in a hospital, and a young nurse once saw "Alice" by my bed. She was completely overwhelmed and begged me to loan her the book for just one night.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


Harry Not-ter

Just in time for the release of The Hoax, in the new April issue of The Believer (and in full text at their website) is my piece on "Namejacking: Seven Books Even Their Authors Don't Recognize":

For an editor, dead authors are notably easier to work with than living ones. This probably explains why, in 1731, the London printer Thomas Astley was able to coax a most unusual seventy-four-page tract out of Sir Isaac Newton: Tables for Renewing and Purchasing Leases of Cathedral Churches and Colleges. Since he’d already been dead for four years, it mattered little that Newton was not in the habit of writing lease-calculators: what mattered was that his name could sell any math-related title, and that Sir Isaac was in no position to lodge a complaint about it.

Formally known as allonymic literature, books that steal the names of famous authors are as old as the pursuit of profit in publishing—which is to say, they are probably as old as literature itself...

In particular, I became fascinated by alloynmic literature using the name of a living writer -- a maneuver which, even for counterfeiters, shows incredible chutzpah.

Although a Chinese counterfeit titled Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up to Dragon got some attention a few years back, there's been no coverage at all of the fact that even more counterfeit Harry Potter "sequels" have followed, including -- I kid you not -- Harry Potter and the Water-Repelling Pearl:

Beijing-based computer programmer Russell Young has an awesome page on his discoveries among the Potter knockoffs.

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