A selection of quotes.

Last modified May 25 2020 (most recent at the top)

The more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you'll have time to start.

From Where I'm Reading From by Tim Parks

The first edition of [Henry George] Liddell and [Robert] Scott [A Greek-English Lexicon, Based on the German Work of Francis Passow] appeared in 1843; today, in its ninth edition (1925-40), it remains the authoritative work in the field. Its three versions--the abridged edition, the intermediate edition without citations, and the unabridged edition--are known affectionately as the "Little Liddell," the "Middle Liddell," and the "Great Scott."

From You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch

The worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. In the words of Joshua Hersh, "It really annoys them." Sara [Lippincott] remembers a reader in a nursing home who read in The New Yorker that he was "the late" reader in the nursing home. He wrote demanding a correction. The New Yorker, in its next issue, of course complied, inadvertently doubling the error, because the reader died over the weekend while the magazine was being printed.

From Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

The editor of the piece was the affable Arthur Kretchmer, who was soon to become Playboy's editorial director, a position he would hold for thirty years. My conferences with him, always on the telephone, were light and without speed bumps as we made our way through the strawberries, the extinguishings, and the resurrections, until we came to the Members' Enclosure [at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club].

In the Members' Enclosure, on the Members' Lawn, members and their guests are sitting under white parasols, consuming best-end-of-lamb salad and strawberries in Devonshire cream. Around them are pools of goldfish. The goldfish are rented from Harrods. The members are rented from the uppermost upper middle class. Wimbledon is the annual convention of this stratum of English society, starboard out, starboard home.

Arthur Kretchmer said, "What does that mean?"

Assuming a tone of faintest surprise, I explained that when English people went out to India during the Raj, they went in unairconditioned ships. The most expensive staterooms were on the port side, away from the debilitating sun. When they sailed westward home, the most expensive staterooms were on the starboard side, for the same reason. And that is the actual or apocryphal but nonetheless commonplace etymology of the word "posh." Those people in the All England Members' Enclosure were one below Ascot: starboard out, starboard home.

I didn't have a stopwatch with which to time the length of the silence on the other end of the line. I do remember what Kretchmer eventually said. He said, "Maybe one reader in ten thousand would get that."

I said, "Look: you have bought thirteen thousand words about Wimbledon with no other complaint. I beg you to keep it as it is for that one reader."

He said, "Sold!"

From Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

We love New York City and don't want to pick on The Big Apple. But data are data. A 1999 study suggested that living in New York City--or even just visiting--increases your risk of dying from a heart attack. Compared with people who live in other cities, New York City residents have a substantially higher risk of a fatal heart attack. Visitors to New York have an increase in the chance of dying from a heart attack during their visit. However, when visitors return home, their risk returns to normal. This effect holds true for New Yorkers--their risk of heart attack plummets when they leave the city. Interestingly, these effects are unique to New York City, consistent with the hypothesis that New York is more stressful than other large cities. Our advice? When you are in New York City, counter the stress by taking some time to relax. Visit the parks. Have a nice (healthy) meal at an excellent restaurant. See a Broadway show. Make sure thay you have some fun.

From Heart 411 by Marc Gillinov, MD and Steven Nissen, MD.

The FDA is cracking down on misleading front-of-box health claims. If a pharmaceutical company wants to claim that a drug reduces cholesterol, it must complete a large, randomized controlled study and gather real data on cholesterol levels in thousands of people before obtaining FDA approval to market the drug for this purpose. Until recently, food companies could get away with these claims without the supporting data. For example, General Mills used to advertise that Cheerios could reduce cholesterol, and by implication the risk of coronary heart disease. In 2009, the FDA warned the company that these claims violated federal law. General Mills changed the wording to comply with the law, but the package still touts the "toasted whole grain oat cereal" inside and notes that "three grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain foods, like Cheerios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease." And, of course, the Cheerios box displays the cereal in a red, heart-shaped bowl. Cheerios are fine, but we don't want you to think that a bowl a day will protect you from heart disease.

Our goal here is not to beat up General Mills or Cheerios, we want to illustrate the way manufacturers manipulate the fronts of packages to convey the notion that a food is healthy. Until the United States goes the way of the United Kingdom, which places a stoplight-like red, yellow, or green dot on the front of foods to indicate their fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt content, read the back-of-package Nutrition Facts panel first. Don't judge a food by its front cover. Use the data on the back and your own knowledge to determine whether a food meets the standard for heart-healthiness.

From Heart 411 by Marc Gillinov, MD and Steven Nissen, MD.

[...] list of values AOL posts on its website:

Quick and nimble
Always improving

I've tried explaining parallel construction to the AOL contingent. (Can you imagine the French storming the Bastille shouting, "Free! Equality! Fraternal!"?) But what can you expect from people who call their personnel directory "People Look-Up"?

From Diary of a Company Man by James S. Kunen.

Almost all the serious environmental problems we face now are the direct or indirect consequences of what seemed, originally, like awfully good ideas. Relying on technology to solve those problems means having faith in our ability to eliminate or contain the inevitable unintended consequences--a big gamble, if history is an indication. (A leader in the development of CFCs was Thomas Midgley, Jr., a chemist and mechanical engineer, who could probably be considered the patron saint of unintended consequences, since he was also instrumental in the development of the gasoline additive tetraethyl lead. Midgley, according to the environmental historian J. R. McNeill, "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history." He was also extremely unlucky. His work with lead gave him lead poisoning, from which he took a year to recover, and in 1940 he contracted polio. He invented a hoist system to enable polio victims to lift themselves from bed, and died in 1944, of asphyxiation, after becoming entangled in the ropes.)

From The Conundrum by David Owen.

The word [serendipity] was coined by that curious man Sir Horace Walpole, known today (if at all) as one of the founders of the "Gothic" tale of suspense and terror, but more famously in his own time as an especially elegant and proficient writer of letters. In a 1754 letter to a friend he describes his discovery of some curious Venetian coat of arms and pauses to say that "this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity." And then he explains this "very expressive word" of his own invention: "I once read a silly fairy tale, called 'The Three Princes of Serendip'"--Serendip being an old name for Sri Lanka: "as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of... (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description)." The finding of what one is not looking for will be the element of the letter most obviously relevant to what I've been saying so far; but equally important is the phrase "by accidents and sagacity," or, as Walpole puts it later in the same letter, "accidental sagacity."

From The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.

I am also fond of Cory Doctorow's comment that "the biggest impediment to concentration is your computer's ecosystem of interruption technologies."

Many of us try to console ourselves in the midst of the blooming and buzzing by claiming the powers of multitasking. But a great deal of very thorough research into multitasking has been done in recent years, and it has produced some unequivocally clear results, chief among them being:

From The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs.
In the halls of Beaufort High School, I'd heard rumors of [librarian] Miss Hunter. She was famous among both teachers and students for her legendary temper and her need for absolute control of her book-lined fiefdom. [...]

[...] When she spotted me reading [Victor] Hugo [Les Miserables] she reacted as though I'd taken a box of Crayolas to the Book of Kells.

"What on earth are you doing here?" she said.

"Im reading a book ma'am," I said. In my high school years I was polite to the point of being oleaginous.

"I can see that. Do I look like an idiot or something?" Miss Hunter snapped. "It's against the rules for a student to use the library during lunchtime."

"Sorry, ma'am. I didn't know that," I replied.

"What's that book you're reading?" She grabbed it out of my hand and examined it as though it were pornographic contraband. She studied the book, then eyed me with a ferocious scowl.

"This book's never even been checked out. Are you reading it for the dirty parts?" she asked, as though she had cracked the mystery of this strange encounter.

"I didn't know it had dirty parts," I answered.

"If it does I'll toss it with the morning trash. If you find anything dirty report it directly to me. Hugo's a Frenchman. I don't like his books. You know what I hear about this Hugo guy?"

"No, ma'am."

"His characters," she said, studying the cover of the book. "He's depressing. All the folks he writes about are just so... just so miserable. We've got another of his books. You ought to try that. It's about a football team. Do you like football?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Eileen Hunter seemed pleased at my answer and pulled another volume of Victor Hugo from a shelf. Then she handed me a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for my reading pleasure. Though she never demonstrated a shred of affection for me, I heard from other teachers that Miss Hunter thought highly of me and always admired my passion for French literature.

From My Reading Life by Pat Conroy.

[...] The Lamb Water Gun Knife uses a high-pressure hose to shoot potatoes at a speed of 117 feet per second through a grid of sharpened steel blades, thereby creating perfectly sliced french fries. [...]


Outside, tractor trailers arrived from the fields, carrying potatoes that had just been harvested. The trucks dumped their loads onto spinning rods that brought the larger potatoes into the building and let the small potatoes, dirt, and rocks fall to the ground. The rods led to a rock trap, a tank of water in which potatoes floated and the rocks sank to the bottom. The plant used water systems to float potatoes gently this way and that way, guiding different sizes out of different holding bays, then flushing them into a three-foot-deep stream that ran beneath the cement floor. [...]

Conveyer belts took the wet, clean potatoes into a machine that blasted them with steam for twelve seconds, boiled the water under their skins, and exploded their skins off. Then the potatoes were pumped into a preheat tank and shot through a Lamb Water Gun Knife. They emerged as shoestring fries. Four video cameras scrutinized them from different angles, looking for flaws. When a french fry with a blemish was detected, an optical sorting machine time-sequenced a single burst of compressed air that knocked the bad fry off the production line and onto a separate conveyor belt, which carried it to a machine with tiny automated knives that precisely removed the blemish. And then the fry was returned to the main production line.

Spray of hot water blanched the fries, gusts of hot air dried them, and 25,000 pounds of boiling oil fried them to a slight crisp. Air cooled by compressed ammonia gas quickly froze them, and a device that spun like an out-of-control lazy Susan used centrifugal force to align the french fries so that they all pointed in the same direction. The fries were sealed in brown bags, then the bags were loaded by robots into cardboard boxes, and the boxes were stacked by robots onto wooden pallets.[...]

From Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.

I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn't it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up. You can delude yourself that no one at the table thinks of you as a geezer. And finding the missing bit is so quick. There's none of the nightmare of the true Senior Moment--the long search for the answer, the guessing, the self-recrimination, the head-slapping mystification, the frustrated-finger-snapping. You just go to Google and retrieve it.

You can't retrieve your life (unless you're on Wikipedia, in which case you can retrieve an inaccurate version of it).

But you can retrieve the name of that actor who was in that movie, the one about World War II. And the name of that writer who wrote that book, the one about her affair with that painter. Or the name of that song that was sung by that singer, the one about love.

You know the one.

From I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron

[During a campus tour of Harvard University, parents met with the dean of admissions who described the process, various admissions statistics, etc.]

A man with a heavy Cantonese accent interrupted her. "How about legacies?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"How many of class are legacies?" he said. "Their parents went to Harvard."

"Oh, I don't have that information," she said. "I'm not sure we even keep that information."

Just a guess, then, the man persisted.

"I wouldn't want to guess."

"So you have no way of knowing?" he asked, with exaggerated incredulity. "The numbers don't exist?" His wife, short and stocky, stood next to him, staring at the dean. Their son bowed his head and closed his eyes.

"Legacy is just one of many factors that Harvard considers," the dean said. "I like to say 'legacy can help the wounded, but it can't raise the dead!'" She laughed uncomfortably but the father and mother still stared.

"Answer the question," another father called out.

"Maybe I can get that information for you afterward," she said, twisting one hand with the other. She moved one foot backward.

"Come on," said another parent, with just a hint of insurrection.

She was quiet a moment before surrendering. "If I had to say," she said, "thirty, maybe thirty-five percent."

There was a moment of shock before the murmuring began. The number was hard to square with the egalitarianism of the video we had just seen. The number suggested the tradition of Ivy League primogeniture.

From Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College by Andrew Ferguson.

Apartments in New York have ranged in size from one room with one bath to 54 rooms with 16 baths. The buildings containing these apartments have also varied widely in their dimensions. The narrowest house presently standing in Manhattan is on Bedford Street and is 9 1/2 feet wide. This seems almost palatial compared to the one that stood on the northwest corner of 82nd Street and Lexington Avenue from 1882 until 1915. It was 102 feet long, but only 5 feet wide! It must certainly have been the narrowest building ever built and was undoubtedly the strangest apartment house known. In 1882, Hyman Sarner, a clothier, wanted to build an apartment house on a lot he owned on East 82nd Street. He lacked, however, the five-foot strip of land fronting Lexington Avenue. He approached Joseph Richardson, who owned the strip, and offered him $1000 for the land. Richardson wanted $5000, which Sarner refused to pay. Undaunted, Sarner erected his house, with windows on the lot line. Apparently for spite, Richardson then erected his own house on the narrow strip. He lived in part of it until he died in 1897 at the age of 84, renting out the apartments in the rest of the building. The spiral staircase and the halls were too narrow for two people to pass, and the rooms were arranged railroad-car fashion, making it necessary to pass through one to get to the next. The furniture had to be specially built to fit, the dining table being only 18" wide, but somehow space was found for Richardson's coffin, which he kept in the house, having had it built from the wood of a tree he had specially selected in 1854!

From New York's Fabulous Luxury Apartments by Andrew Alpern.

It seems that I had once read in The Historians' History of the World that Abd er-Rahman III, the greatest King of Muslim Spain, who had reigned fifty years with great success and prosperity, had confessed that in all that time, he had had only fourteen happy days. It seemed a remarkable commentary on the human condition, and I remembered it--especially since I myself had had far more than fourteen happy days.

A couple of weeks before my lunch with [editors] Tim [Seldes] and Wendy [Weil], I had bought a paperback book of quotations edited by George Seldes, Tim's uncle. I liked books of quotations and tend to buy them when I see them. This one, however, was filled with quotations that were expressed in such turgid and unmemorable prose that (even though I agreed with virtually all the liberal sentiments) I threw the book away.

It did, however, have the Abd er-Rahman III quotation under "Happiness." It went something like this: "I have reigned fifty years at the height of prosperity and power, loved by my friends, respected by my subjects, and feared by my enemies, yet in all that time I have known but fourteen completely happy days." I noticed that quote because until that time I had thought I was the only person in the world who knew it.

At lunch I said to Tim, "I just bought your uncle's book of quotations."

"Really," said Tim, "and did you notice the mistake in the very first item?"

Well, I hadn't. I knew that Tim asked me that only to puncture the rumor that I had a photographic memory, and the fact was that I hadn't the faintest idea what the first item in the book was. Thinking rapidly, however, I recalled that in the introduction to the book (I read introductions) it stated that the paperback (which I had bought) differed from the hardcover edition in listing quotes alphabetically by subject rather than by author. If in the hardcover the listing were alphabetically by author, then the Abd er-Rahman III quote was probably first.

Thinking that through took only a few seconds, so when I said, calmly, "Yes, I did," it sounded as though there had been no pause at all.

Tim said, disdainfully, "You're bluffing. You don't even know what the first quotation was."

"Yes, I do," I said, "It was Abd er-Rahman III's statement, "I have reigned fifty year..." and I completed it with reasonable accuracy.

Both Tim and Wendy were now staring at me, and Tim said, "And what was the error?"

"Although Abd er-Rahman III is quoted as saying he reigned fifty years, they give his dates of his reign, and he died after reigning only 49 years," I said (having happened to notice everything about that fascinating quotation.) "That's not really a mistake, however. He was counting the years by the Mohammedan lunar calendar, in which there are only 354 days to the year." I then went on (remembering another item I had noticed), "The quotation is only first in the hardcover, of course. In the softcover it is on page 441 and under...."

Tim could stand no more. He leaned across the table, seized my lapel, bunched it, drew me toward him, and said loudly, "Asimov, to choose a phrase at random--you're a prick."

I couldn't have done it for any other quotation in the book, and it was sheerest luck that Tim had picked on it.

From It's Been a Good Life by Isaac Asimov & Janet Jeppson Asimov (Ed.).

The chief problem for me, I knew, would be the actual writing of the report. Writing was not a simple procedure in the Navy Yard, even for an illiterate--let alone someone like myself who was an expert at writing and would therefore violate all official illiteracy rules.

Early in my Navy Yard career, I had been asked to write a letter and it was promptly brought back to me. It was not written in Navy style.

"What is Navy style?" I asked, blankly.

They took me to a large filing cabinet containing all kinds of letters written in a formal, convoluted fashion. There had to be a heading of a certain kind, and then an "in re" with a coded letter-number entry. Each paragraph had to be numbered. Every sentence had to be in the passive.

The safest thing, they said, would be to find some paragraph in some previous letter that was approximately what I wanted to say and then make use of it with minimum changes.

I could see the purpose of that. Clear, literate writers could be trusted to use their ingenuity--but what of the average employee? By using fixed paragraphs, no idiot (however deeply immersed in idiocy) could go far wrong. It was like painting with numbers. It was a little hard on the few literates in the place, but that is a small price to pay for the privilege of avoiding rapid and total collapse, so I learned how to write Navy style.

Specifications had to be written Navy style also. Every paragraph had to be numbered; so did every subparagraph and every subsubparagraph. The main paragraphs were listed as I, II, III, and so on. If anything under a particular paragraph had to be enumerated it was A, B, C.... If A included enumerated items it was 1, 2, 3.... Under any of these was a, b, c..., and under these (1), (2), (3)..., and so on.

Furthermore, if in any one sentence you have to refer to another sentence, you located the referred sentence in its position in the specification, as, for instance, II, C, 3, a, (1).

Generally, there weren't too many indentation, or too many references back and forth, and the specifications, while rather tortuous, could be understood--given several hours of close study.

When it finally came my time to prepare the specification of the seam-sealing compounds, a certain Puckishness overtook me. Writing with absolute clarity, I nevertheless managed to break everything down into enumerations, getting all the way down to [(1)] and even [(a)]. I further managed in almost every sentence to refer to some other sentence for which I duly listed a complete identification.

The result was that no one on earth could have plunged into it and come out unscathed. Brain coagulation would have set in by page 2.

Solemnly, I handed in the specification. I had done nothing wrong, so I could not be scolded or disciplined. All they could do would be to come back with some embarrassment and ask for simplification--and, of course, the joke would be over and I would simplify. I just hoped that none of my supervisors would require hospitalization. I didn't really intend things to go that far.

But the joke was on me. My supervisors were wreathed in smiles at this product of the satirist's art. They took it straight and swallowed it whole.... Years later, I was told that that specification was still preserved (under nitrogen, do you suppose?) and handed out to new employees as an example of how specifications ought to be written.

I worried, sometimes, in looking back on it, just how much, in my eagerness to play a harmless joke, I had set back the war effort.

From It's Been a Good Life by Isaac Asimov & Janet Jeppson Asimov (Ed.).

Early the next morning I went for a walk along the waterfront, past a chowder house, a saltwater taffy shop, a wax museum, and a replica Mayflower moored in the bay. Near the water stood a gray historic marker that was terse even by New England standards.

Plymouth Rock. Landing Place of the Pilgrims. 1620

I looked around and couldn't see anything except asphalt and a few stones small enough to skip. Then I spotted a lone speedwalker racing down the sidewalk. "Excuse me," I said, chasing after him, "but where's Plymouth Rock?"

Without breaking stride, he thrust his thumb over his shoulder. "You just passed it."

Twenty yards back was a columned enclosure, between the sidewalk and shoreline. Stepping inside, I came to a rail overlooking a shallow pit. At the bottom sat a lump of granite, the wet sand around it strewn with cigarette butts and ticket stubs from the wax museum. The boulder, about five feet square, had a badly mended cleft in the middle. It looked like a fossilized potato.

A few minutes later a family arrived. As they entered the portico, the father intoned to his children, "This is where it all began." Then they peered over the rail.

"That's it?"

"Guess so."

"It's like, nothing."

"We've got bigger rocks than that in our yard."

Before long, the portico was packed: tour bus groups, foreign sightseers, summer campers. Their response followed the same arc, from solemnity to shock to hilarity. But Plymouth Rock was an icon of American history. So visitors dutifully snapped pictures or pointed video cameras at the static granite.

"That's going to be one heckuva home movie."

"Yeah. My Visit to Plymouth Pebble."

"The Pilgrims must have had small feet."


As a town, Plymouth also took pains to puncture the romantic myths that had grown up around its early settlers. Paintings and legend depict the Pilgrims stepping from the Mayflower straight onto the Rock, and many visitors still believe this actually happened. But a historic marker near the Rock, and a booklet sold at museum shops, spelled out in detail the amusing truth behind the boulder's enshrinement.

The first of the Mayflower passengers to step ashore at Plymouth were scouts, who arrived in a small boat. When the Mayflower followed, the ship anchored a mile out in the shallow bay, and the English were shuttled ashore. In any event, the Pilgrims never mentioned the Rock--or any coastal rock--in their copious writing about Plymouth. Rather, the story of the hallowed stepping-stone derived from oral testimony, recorded generations later, in the manner of an Icelandic saga.

"About the year 1741," the story went, a church elder named Faunce asked to be carried to the shore, where a wharf was soon to be built. Pointing to a large rock, he said it was the very stone that "had received the footsteps of our fathers on their first arrival." Faunce then "bedewed it with his tears and bid to it an everlasting adieu."

Elder Faunce was ninety-five at the time. Even if his memory was intact, he'd been born a quarter century after the Pilgrims landed. His father, from whom he'd heard the story, wasn't a witness, either; he came to Plymouth three years after the Mayflower. And the story of Faunces identification of the stone was itself based on a boyhood memory, that of a deacon who recalled, many decades later, having been "present on the interesting occasion" of the old man's teary farewell.

At the time of Faunce's adieu, no one else much cared about the Rock, which was promptly buried beneath the wharf. But on the eve of the American Revolution, "animated by the glorious spirit of liberty," Plymoutheans tried to free the stone with thirty yoke of oxen. In so doing, they split it. Unable to pry loose the bottom half, they toted the top part to the town square, where it became a venerated and much vandalized symbol of liberty, with souvenir-seekers chipping off pieces to carry home.

When locals later moved the mutilated stone to safer ground, behind a fence at Pilgrim Hall, they dropped it from a cart, adding a fresh crack. Eventually, the wandering slab was reunited with its other half at the waterfront and cemented to it. The wharf was torn down and the Greek Outhouse erected, creating the venue where tourists have looked down at the much-abused Rock ever since.

From A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz.

Many writers fear that in the future, electronic books will come to substitute more readily for print books, due to changing audiences and improved technology. I am skeptical of this--the codex format has endured for centuries as a simple and elegant answer to the affordances demanded by print, albeit for a relatively small fraction of the population. Most people aren't readers--but the people who are readers will be readers forever, and they are positively pervy for paper.

From Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future by Cory Doctorow.

Just before Hydes Lane we were accosted by an old drunk called Winston who asked us where we were from. "Ahh, Australia," he slurred. "You have the largest barrier reef in the world. You are the largest consumers of beer in the world. And your capital is Canberra."

I was impressed. Most people think the capital of Australia is Sydney.

"I'm very good at capitals," Winston said proudly. "Ask me any and if I get it right you can buy me a beer."

"Okay," I said. "What's the capital of Burundi?"

After a few minutes of thinking he looked at me with a pained look on his face and whined, "I don't know!" The thought of the beer he'd just missed out on was almost too much for him to bear.

"Oh, don't be mean!" said the GND. "How would he know that? Give him an easy one!"

"Okay," I said, a little chastened. I'd thought the exercise had been to test his knowledge, but it seemed the GND saw it merely as a pretext to hand the guy money. "What's the capital of India?"

"Bombay?" he said hopefully.

"New Delhi, I'm afraid" I went to walk off but the GND hit me.

"Ask him another one. And make it easy!"

"Okay," I said. "What's the capital of the USA?"

"Oh, I know that one," Winston said excitedly, jumping up and down. "New York!"

"That's right," I lied, handing him a dollar.

From The Full Montezuma: Around Central America with the Girl Next Door by Peter Moore.

The helper named Chip says, "Do you recall a lunch meeting with Sonya Bourne on the thirteenth of July in 2001 at which you two discussed options grants?"

"Let me see," I say. "2001? Thirteenth of July?" I close my eyes and wait a few seconds, as if I'm concentrating. "Ah, right. Okay. Yes. July 13, 2001. It was a Tuesday. We went to Il Fornaio in Palo Alto. I had a Waldorf salad and a bottle of San Pellegrino. I sent the salad back because there was mayonnaise in the dressing and had them make it again with a vinaigrette dressing, and the waiter said then it won't be a Waldorf salad and I said that's fine, bring me what I want. Waiter's name was Anton. Six-one, slender, brown curly hair. Wore a silver ring on his right hand, middle finger. Timex sport watch on his left wrist. Sonya had a turkey club sandwich, no bacon, light mayo, and a Diet Coke with a wedge of lemon. No, strike that. Wedge of lime. The bill came to twenty-tree dollars and nineteen cents. I left a two-dollar tip. Paid with a Visa card."

Chip scowls. "So, that's a no?"

"Do you remember where you were on some random day five years ago? Come one."

From oPtion$: The Secret Life of Steve Jobs by Fake Steve Jobs (Daniel Lyons).

"Fin, could you help me with a crest?"

"They're not called crests, Short."

"Shields, then."

"Tut-tut. How long have you worked here? The preferred term is coat of arms."

The world of books has no shortage of prigs, which may be why Finster Dapples decided to distinguish himself by slipcasing commonplace pretension in Anglo speech. (How many native New Yorkers say "Tut-tut"?) Finster, far from tracing his roots to a twelfth-century Lincolnshire leasehold, grew up in a Brooklyn housing project. His own coat of arms might well have been crossed stickball bats and cockroaches rampant on a field of cracked concrete.

From The Grand Complication by Allen Kurzweil.

[National Association of Professional Organizers president Barry] Izsak says he can prove organizing pays off with a little demonstration he likes to throw into his presentations. In this demonstration he takes two decks of cards, one shuffled, and one ordered by suit and rank, and gives each to a different person. He then calls out the names of four cards and has the two deck-holders race to find the cards. Naturally, the person with the ordered deck always wins handily.

But who puts the neat deck in order? A little experimenting with people of modest card dexterity shows that on average it takes 140 seconds to order a deck, plus another 16 seconds to find four cards in the ordered deck for a total of 156 seconds; it takes about 35 seconds to find four cards in an unsorted deck. One could argue that you only have to order the deck once, and then you can find cards more quickly many times. But in that case, you also need to account for the time it takes to replace the four cards in an ordered deck, about 16 seconds--with cards, as with most things in life, it requires repeated effort to maintain order--compared to the fraction of a second it takes to stick four cards anywhere in an unordered deck. Thus, with a preordered deck, it takes 32 seconds to find and replace four cards, versus 36 seconds with a shuffled deck, giving the preordered deck a 4-second advantage. But since it requires 140 seconds to order the deck, taking that trouble wouldn't pay off unless you need to repeat the task at least thirty-five times, and you're meticulous about maintaining the deck's order between each attempt. In real life, decks tend to get shuffled sooner or later, requiring 140 seconds each time to restore order.

Indeed, organizers freely admit that ongoing maintenance is critical to being organized, and many concede that most clients they organize fail to stick with the program and lapse back into disorder. But that's okay--you just need to have the organizer come back every so often to get back on track.

From A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman.

Showing up is the main thing. Get to the desk regularly. You'll find you have no end of ideas if you can make writing a regular habit. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of being successful in life is just showing up. We all know this is true. The writers we admire--or envy--might be geniuses whose talent dwarfs ours, but more often they're people who show up, with those seven-hundred-page novels they've been rising at five to write every morning for the past year. You think, I'm as talented as Anne. I would have done that. But alas, you have no seven-hundred-page novel. You have six novels, varying from twenty-five to sixty pages. They're in a drawer or file cabinet, or even still in computer files. Is the culprit writer's block? A dearth of ideas? Cruel and fickle fortune? Nope. If you want to write, you must begin by beginning, continue by continuing, finish by finishing. This is the great secret of it all. Tell no one.

From The Writer's Idea Book by Jack Heffron.

People were charmed and captivated--transfixed, really--by the broiling majesty and unnatural might of atomic bombs. When the military started testing nuclear weapons at a dried lakebed called Frenchman Flat in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas it became the town's hottest tourist attraction. People came to Las Vegas not to gamble--or at least not exclusively to gamble--but to stand on the desert's edge, feel the ground shake beneath their feet, and watch the air before them fill with billowing pillars of smoke and dust. Visitors could stay at the Atomic View Motel, order an Atomic Cocktail ("equal parts vodka, brandy, and champagne, with a splash of sherry") in local cocktail lounges, eat an Atomic Hamburger, get an Atomic Hairdo, watch the annual crowning of Miss Atom Bomb or the nightly rhythmic gyrations of a stripper named Candyce King who called herself "the Atomic Blast."

As many as four nuclear detonations a month were conducted in Nevada in the peak years. The mushroom clouds were visible from any parking lot in the city, but most visitors went to the edge of the blast zone itself, often with picnic lunches, to watch the tests and enjoy the fallout afterward. And these were big blasts. Some were seen by airline pilots hundreds of miles out over the Pacific Ocean. Radioactive dust often drifted across Las Vegas, leaving a visible coating on every horizontal surface. After some of the early tests, government technicians in white lab coats went through the city running Geiger counters over everything. People lined up to see how radioactive they were. It was all part of the fun. What a joy it was to be indestructible.

From The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson.

He arrived at the narrow opening where visitors who had successfully made their way past a metal detector could pass through a turnstile onto the grounds, once the policeman who controlled the bar of the turnstile from an adjoining booth was convinced that all of the criteria for entry had been satisfied.

"Hiya, Eddie," Mike Shanahan said to the policeman, as he got out picture ID that showed him to be a consultant to the mayor's office.

"How you doin', Mikey," the policeman said. The bar remained across the turnstile.

"You want to let me in, Eddie, so I can serve the people of this great city to the best of my ability?"

"We got a security check goin' today, Mike," the policeman said.

He began typing with two fingers on a computer keyboard in order to bring Shanahan's security form up on a monitor that only he could see.

"Didn't we have a security check yesterday?" Shanahan asked.

"That's right. So far, we've had a security check every day this week."

"The mayor particularly worried about the forces of disorder this week?"

"You got it," the policeman said. "Okay. Here we are. Grandmother's maiden name?"

"Eddie, listen: We grew up together. You actually knew my grandmother. Do I really have to tell you her maiden name every day?"

Eddie waited at the computer. Neither he nor Shanahan said anything for a few moments. Finally, Eddie said, "It's a job, Mikey."

"Houlihan," Shanahan said. My grandmother's maiden name was Kate Houlihan."

"And an old dear she was, too," the policeman said, smiling at the memory. "I can still taste those molasses cookies of hers."

He asked Shanahan four more questions that were answered correctly, and then pressed a button to lower the bar on the turnstile. "Take her easy, Mikey," he said, as Shanahan walked toward the building.

Shanahan, showing his pass two or three more times to the people he'd worked with for three years, finally made his way to the mayor's outer office, where Teresa, a secretary he'd slept with off and on for a period of four months earlier in the administration, informed him that any visitor to the mayor's office was now required to peer into a machine that would determine by the iris of his right eye whether or not he was who he said he was.

Shanahan looked at Teresa for a while without saying anything.

Teresa broke the silence. "If what I am witnessing constitutes being rendered speechless by news of this security device," she said, "you should know that being speechless is not a valid excuse. You will have to look into the machine."

"Do you have reason to believe I'm not me?" Shanahan asked.

"I'm pretty sure you're you," Teresa said. "How many people could look that much like the farmer driven out of Ireland by the potato famine? But if you don't let the machine check the iris of your right eye you can't go into the mayor's office."

From Tepper Isn't Going Out by Calvin Trillin.

[Six year old] Zoe looked at me. "You've got good muscles." She leaned over and felt my bicep, gave it an appreciative pinch.

Sunny [Zoe's mother] laughed. "Stop being a flirt. Honestly, Zoe."

Zoe wheeled on her mother. "You're the one who said it!" The kid could see she'd hit the mark and she pressed her advantage. "You said yourself, Mom. 'Look at that fine spaceman! Don't we know him?' You said that."

"Spaceman?" I said.

"Specimen," Sunny murmured. She was blushing sweetly.

From Which Brings Me to You by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott.

Artists and craftspeople, whose work involves short flashes of intense concentration followed by long hours of less mentally demanding work, often fill these hours with audiobooks.

These studio workers are actually following a long tradition of people who have paid money to have stories read to them. In the mid-nineteenth century, Cuban cigar makers hired a lector de tabaqueria to read to them while they worked. One of the most popular books was Alexander Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo. Visions of Mediterranean islands, lost love, and clashing swords so entranced the cigar workers that they ordered the book read again and again. In 1870, the workers wrote to the author and asked his permission to name their cigars in the book's honor, which Dumas granted that year of his death. Thus was born the Montecristo cigar.

From The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life by Steve Leveen.

To avoid disappointment in art, one mustn't treat it as a career. Despite whatever great artistic sense and talent a man might possess, he ought to seek money and power elsewhere to avoid forsaking his art when he fails to receive proper compensation for his gifts and efforts.

From My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.

[Helene Hanff, author of 84, Charing Cross Road was a starving playwright in the forties, and took part-time jobs while working on her plays. At one time she worked as an "outside reader" for the New York office of one of the Hollywood studios. Her job was to read one novel per day and summarize it in one paragraph. For this she would get $6. Sometimes, she would be asked to write extended summaries of around 10 pages, for which she would get $10. Here's how she recounts one weekend multi-volume assignment.]

Well, on the blackest Friday I ever want to see, I was summoned to Monograph [the fictionalized name of the studio] and handed three outsized paperback volumes of an English book which was about to be published here. I was to read all three volumes over the weekend, and since each volume was double the length of the usual novel I was invited to charge double money for each. I hurried home with the three volumes and after dinner began to read Volume I. And if Monograph's office had been open at that hour, I'd have phoned and quit my job.

What I had to read, during that nightmare weekend--taking notes on all place names, characters' names and events therein--was fifteen hundred stupefying pages of the sticky mythology of J. R. R. Tolkein. (I hope I'm spelling his name wrong.) I remember opening one volume to a first line which read

Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday...

and phoning several friends to say good-bye because suicide seemed so obviously preferable to five hundred more pages of that.

I also remember the bill I turned in:

For Reading and Summarizing:
TITLE: Lord of the Rings
AUTHOR: J. R. R. Tolkien

Volume I...........$20
Volume II..........$20
Volume III.........$20
Mental Torture..$40


They paid it.

From Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff.

The clerks in New York City's civil court recently reported that name changes are at an all time high. Some of the changes are purely, if bizarrely, aesthetic. A young couple named Natalie Jeremijenko and Dalton Conley recently renamed their four-year-old son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley.


Then there are invented names. Roland G. Fryer, Jr., while discussing his names research on a radio show, took a call from a black woman who was upset with the name just given to her baby niece. It was pronounced shuh-TEED but was in fact spelled "Shithead." Or consider the twin boys OrangeJello and LemonJello, also black, whose parents futher dignified their choice by instituting the pronunciations a-RON-zhello and le-MON-zhello.

From Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Old Maugham [Somerset?], talking to a girls' school about the art of writing short stories, told them that the essential ingredients were religion, sex, mystery, high rank, non-literary language and brevity. The schoolmistress next day told her young charges to try their hand at writing one according to this recipe. After a minute one said she had finished. The incredulous mistress told her to read it out, and she did: 'My God!', said the duchess. 'I'm pregnant. I wonder who done it.'

--George Lyttelton

From The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters: A Selection: Correspondence of George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis, 1955-1962 edited by Roger Hudson

For the session this afternoon I have decided to create my own mathematical theatre exercise. I have printed out the 50 odd numbers from 9,999,901 to 9,999,999 and give each member of the audience their own number. We then produce a human version of an ancient Greek way to find the primes among these numbers, called the sieve of Eratosthenes. Everyone begins by standing up and waving a number in the air. As soon as someone finds their number is divisible by three, say, they sit down, confident that their number is not prime. But then every third person on from this number will also be divisible by three so they can sit down too. By sieving through the numbers like three, five, seven, etc., we begin to sort out the primes from the non-primes. When I talk to people afterwards they really loved the exercise. Some people have become very attached to their particular number. Mathematicians often talk about numbers becoming their personal friends. It is strange how by making people into numbers I've animated these numbers in a way I had not anticipated.

--Marcus du Sautoy

From Science, Not Art: Ten Scientists' Diaries edited by Jon Turney

I had to cut back on the smoke after fading out during an early morning Chinese class and snapping back into a room where everybody was speaking Cantonese. I had a major panic attack, thought I'd smoked so much I'd lost the power to comprehend speech.

From He Died with a Felafel in His Hand by John Birmingham

... 'Terrible lot of them died you know, 'Ten thousand or more they say. 'All because some toff got shot. 'It's a terrible price to pay. 'They though it was right to go to war, 'King and Country and such. 'But lookin' back on it all from 'ere, 'It didn't amount to much. 'Bloody silly, war, you know, 'No one ever wins. 'Men fight and die and twenty years on 'Their sons repeat their sins. ...

From "The Old Stone Fence" in The Spirit of the Bush by Bruce Venables

I bid good-bye outside Borders, and headed toward Carnaby Street to meet Ian.

Just before I got there I could feel my mobile vibrating in my pocket. Ian's number came up. He was probably ringing to tell me he'd be late.


"Dan... guess where I am?"

"Somewhere that means you'll be late?"

"I'm nearer than you think."

Ian was being mysterious. It's not good when Ian's being mysterious.

"Where are you? And why are you being mysterious?"

I scanned the road, but couldn't see him anywhere.

"What's the most unlikely vehicle for me to be in right now?"

I re-scanned the road. Virtually opposite me was a huge, white stretch limousine. The type you see over and over again on a Saturday night cruising down Charing Cross Road, and despite knowing that it's either a debauched hen night or some kind of local radio winner, part of you always wonders whether Leo Sayer might pop his head out the door, or you might catch a glimpse of Gary Coleman on his way to some audition or other.

"You're not in the limo, are you?"


"Is Gary Coleman in there?"


"What are you doing in the limo?"

"Waving at you!"

I couldn't believe it. I crossed the road, smiling, and stood next to the limousine, studying my own reflection in its blacked-out windows.

"I don't understand!" I said. And I didn't. This wasn't his car. I've been in his car lots of times. I would've remembered it this was it.

"I'm still waving at you, you rude bastard."

I stood there, an incredulous look on my face, and started to wave at the general area where I thought Ian would be sitting. I knocked on the glass, smiling.

"Peter the driver is waving at you now!"

I stepped back and started to wave at Peter the driver. His window wasn't blacked-out, and I continued waving while he just stared at me, a rather worried smile on his face.

"Hello, Peter the driver!" I tried.

"Why don't you come in?" said Ian.

"Okay!" This was exciting. I'd never been in a stretch limo before. I reached for the door handle and tried to open the door. The limo started up and inched away from me slowly. I heard the central locking chunk-click.

"What are you doing?" I said.

"Just standing about."

"In a limo?"

"No, outside Starbucks."

I looked up. Ian was grinning at me, mobile in hand, while I, his supposed friend, was apparently attempting to break into a parked limousine, and waving at God knows who. Maybe one day I'd see Gary Coleman talking about that moment on some confessional chat show as one of the most frightening of his life.

"You tit," I said, as I sat down with my tea.

"I'm sorry. You should have seen your face. I'll pay for your tea by way of apology."

From Join Me by Danny Wallace

His name, it turned out, was Paul Francis, and the sorry reason his arm hurt so much was that two days previously he'd wanted to check whether his mobile phone was working. So he went to a phone box to give himself a ring. However, when he dialed his own number and his mobile had gone off in his pocket it gave him such a fright that his arm involuntarily flew up and he smashed his elbow against the phone box window. He hadn't been expecting any calls, you see. Not even from himself.

From Join Me by Danny Wallace

He was a bear, of course, but not the sort whose predilection for sylvan defecation is as proverbial as the Holy Father's Catholicism. This bear, one saw at a glance, had never been to the woods, let alone behaved irresponsibly there.

From The Burglar in the Rye by Lawrence Block

Once upon a time—before kings and queens were replaced by an act of Congress and when kissing a frog still sometimes resulted in more than a case of warts—there lived a young princess named Jennifer.

From A Hidden Magic by Vivian Vande Velde

Since, on these evenings, I came back late, it was a pleasure to be reunited, in a room no longer hostile, with the bed in which, on the day of my arrival, I had supposed that it would always be impossible for me to find any rest, whereas now my weary limbs longed for its support so that, one after the other, my thighs, my hips and my shoulders sought to adhere at every point to the sheets that covered its mattress, as if my fatigue, like a sculptor, had wished to take a cast of an entire human body.

From Within a Budding Grove (In Search of Lost Time, Volume II) by Marcel Proust, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin (trans.)

Allowing yourself to stop reading a book--at page 25, 50, or even, less frequently, a few chapters from the end--is a rite of passage in a reader's life, the literary equivalent of a bar mitzvah or a communion, the moment at which you look at yourself and announce: Today I am an adult. I can make my own decisions.


Now, thanks to maturity, or psychotherapy, or the simple fact that as I get older I have a lot less time and even less patience, I have given up my membership in the book equivalent of the Clean Plate Club. If I don't like it, I stop reading.


Letting myself off the hook has been beneficial in any number of ways, not the least of which is that it gives me more time to devote to books I actually do like. And, I suppose, knowing I don't have to finish everything I start makes me braver in making out-of-the-mainstream choices in the first place. If I were still laboring under the assumption that an unfinished book would screw up my reading GPA, I might never have tried to fathom Vaclav Havel, for instance. (Never mind that that 'tried' comes with an elliptical but understood 'and failed.)'

From So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson

There is also the joke about the English tourist in the French cafe.

Tourist: 'Waiter, there's a fly in my soup.'

Waiter: 'M'sieur?'

Tourist: 'In my soup. A fly. Un mouche.'

Waiter: 'Une mouche, m'sieur. It's feminine.'

Tourist (peering): 'Blimey, you've got good eyesight.'

From A Pound of Paper by John Baxter

Suggestions and reminders welcome. Send mail to Fuat Baran <fuat@columbia.edu>.

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