Anatole France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921; the award committee, maybe taking a cue from his surname, lauded his “true Gallic temperament.” And there is no denying it: France was French. His celebrated temperament is maybe most visible in Penguin Island, his 1908 novel, which boasts one of the most singular premises in all of fiction. Pitched as a satirical history, it tells the story of Penguinia, an island civilization whose trajectory through the centuries is more or less the same as that of the real France. The difference is that this island is peopled by penguins. Read More
It’s time. I must bring to your attention the least essential controversy of 114 years ago: nude bookplates.
Yes, everyone loves a good ex libris, and time was when no serious reader would be without one—but you couldn’t just go slapping any old thing on your flyleaves. You had to exercise good taste. In a 1902 book called Book-plates of To-day, Wilbur Macey Stone—whose very name conjures many constipated nights with a musty tome by the fireside—lays out a few aesthetic guidelines for the bookplate connoisseur. And it isn’t long before he gets to the big issues. Read More
Don Marquis, an early twentieth-century humorist, had an almost Disney-like knack for creating benign characters who thrived in the popular imagination. The most famous of these was Archy, a poet-cockroach who practiced his craft after-hours on an old typewriter in the offices of the New York Evening Sun. Archy wrote in lowercase letters with no punctuation, because he was too small to reach the shift key. With his companion Mehitabel, a cat who professed to have been Cleopatra in a past life, Archy and his free verse appeared in some half a dozen books, all of which sold handsomely. He counted E. B. White among his fans. “Mr. Marquis’s cockroach,” White wrote in an introduction to The Life and Times of Archy and Mehitabel,
was more than the natural issue of a creative and humorous mind. Archy was the child of compulsion, the stern compulsion of journalism. The compulsion is as great today as it ever was, but it is met in a different spirit. Archy used to come back from the golden companionship of the tavern with a poet’s report of life as seen from the under side. Today’s columnist returns from the platinum companionship of the nightclub with a dozen pieces of watered gossip and a few bottomless anecdotes. Archy returned carrying a heavy load of wine and dreams. These later cockroaches come sober from their taverns, carrying a basket of fluff. I think newspaper publishers in this decade ought to ask themselves why.
But Marquis was also responsible for a character called Clem Hawley, better known as the Old Soak: an endearing alcoholic who had the misfortune of living in America during Prohibition. Read More
The history of our quest for eternal youth is a history of fools’ errands. It’s also, if your glass is half full, a buoyant tribute to the human imagination—or at least to the spirit of determination. We want so badly to stay young. We’ve sought to bathe in the Fountain of Youth, to imbibe the Elixir of Life, and to—well, to do whatever it is one does with the Philosopher’s Stone. (Grind it up and snort it?) But few solutions to the problem of aging are as risible or as tragic as that of Serge Voronoff, who essayed to stave off death by replacing old men’s testicles with those of healthy young monkeys.
Voronoff rose to prominence about a century ago, and his methods were in practice, if not in vogue, through the 1940s. His first book, 1920’s Life: A Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life, is a goulash of Freudian fixations and well-intentioned pseudoscience. Having observed that eunuchs tend to die young—“their faces are glabrous and livid, and their hanging cheeks make them look like old women. Most of them are fat, with rounded outlines and, in many cases, voluminous breasts”—Voronoff came to the deeply specious conclusion that testicles must hold the spermatozoon-shaped key to a long, vigorous life. He began to experiment by grafting the sex glands of lambs into aging rams, and went to great lengths to convince himself that his aim was true: Read More
Of all the books you’ve written, do you have any favorites?
Oh, I’m very fond of a book called Quick Service and another called Sam in the Suburbs, a very old one. But I really like them all. There are very few exceptions.
—P. G. Wodehouse, the Art of Fiction No. 60, 1975
I wonder how Wodehouse (born today in 1881) came down on Love Among the Chickens, one of his earlier novels and, to my mind, one of his strangest. It is, as its title page quite clearly states, “A Story of the Haps and Mishaps on an English Chicken Farm.” (Wonderful use of haps, there. Why is it that we only hear of mishaps these days?) Read More
From “Hanging: From a Business Point of View,” a chapter in James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner (1892). Berry was a renowned hangman in England from 1884 to 1891; he refined the “long drop” method pioneered by William Marwood, and once famously failed to execute John Babbacombe Lee, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang,” when the scaffold’s trap door repeatedly stuck.
I am not ashamed of my calling, because I consider that if it is right for men to be executed (which I believe it is, in murder cases) it is right that the office of executioner should be held respectable. Therefore, I look at hanging from a business point of view.
When I first took up the work … I made application on a regular printed form, which gave the terms and left no opening for mistake or misunderstanding … I still use this circular when a sheriff from whom I have had no previous commission writes for terms. The travelling expenses are understood to include second-class railway fare from Bradford to the place of execution and back, and cab fare from railway station to gaol. If I am not lodged in the gaol, hotel expenses are also allowed. Read More