Scheherazade: The Prison Storyteller

In the Persian classic 1001 NIGHTS, a ruthless king chooses a new wife each day and beheads her the next morning. When Scheheradaze learns that she is chosen to be the next doomed queen, she does not despair. Instead, in the dark hours of her wedding night she weaves a brilliant, but unfinished story. The king, caught on the tenterhooks of her tale, had no choice but to let her live. The second night, she finishes her story and begins another that keeps her alive yet another day. Each night she tells a different narrative, more fantastic than the one before. Finally, the the king decides that he can’t live without Scheheradaze. The stories save her life. Malika Oufkir was a real-life, 20th century Scheheradaze, who used a story to help her mother and young siblings survive twenty years of near starvation and imprisonment. In 1972 General Oufkir, the highest ranking official in Morocco under King Hassan II, staged an unsuccessful coup against the monarchy. He did not survive the day and the king exiled his wife and six young children to a desert prison. After a life of luxury and privilege among the wealthiest Moroccans, the Oufkir family descended into obscurity, facing desperate living conditions and near starvation for the next twenty years. At nineteen years of age, beautiful Malika had been on the cusp of life when police forced her from her home with her mother and brothers and sisters. She was the oldest. Her youngest sibling was three and a half. At first they were allowed a few personal belongings: clothing, books, paper, and a precious radio that...

Ernest Vincent Wright’s E-less Book

Ernest Vincent Wright wrote GADSBY, a 50,000 word novel without  a single E. His characters are as interesting as cardboard, and the plot is nostalgically meandering (think Thornton Wilder’s Our Town without the profundity). But his achievement is nothing less than astonishing, accomplished by tying down the “E” key on his typewriter for the final copy. For five months he shunned the simple past tense of most words and created a plot that required a sparse use of numbers and no definite articles. Self-published in 1939, most of GADSBY’S first printing burned up in a warehouse fire. Wright did not live long afterward, but his book is still available today, both in print and, ironically, E-book form. When asked why he wrote it, he chalked it up to his balky nature, and the fact that someone said it couldn’t be done. He also believed that the “book may prove a valuable aid to school children in English composition,” presumably for its complicated grammatical gymnastics. It turns out that Es are characters of a sensitive type. Wright admitted “As I wrote . . . a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like sea-birds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper,...

The Book Burning Chamber Maid

One chilly morning in March of 1835, a chambermaid used a stack of scrap paper to kindle a nice cozy fire. Unfortunately, that stack of scrap paper was Thomas Carlyle’s handwritten first volume of THE FRENCH REVOLUTION that he had lent to John Stuart Mill for review. (It’s current paperback edition contains 380 small-print pages crammed with Carlyle’s feverish prose, in case you were wondering how many pages of work went up in flames that day). How could Mill explain to Carlyle that months of his life now lay in a heap of ashes in his grate? He did what seemed right in that courageous century (lacking the convenience and cowardice of instant text messaging). He visited Carlyle in person, bringing the burned scraps with him. Carlyle met the situation with heroic equanimity, especially considering that he and his wife were on the brink of financial ruin. He simply asked Mill to buy him some paper, so that he could begin again.  After he finished Volumes II and III, he set himself to the task of rewriting Volume I from scratch. Capturing both the feeling and the events of times, THE FRENCH REVOLUTION served as Charles Dicken’s primary source for his famous TALE OF TWO CITIES. We’re all very glad that Carlyle didn’t just pull the covers over his head and give into writerly despair. Accidental manuscript burnings are less common these days. Now, instead of using paper and ink, we inscribe our grandest ideas and profoundest thoughts in binary bits that can reach around the world, while floating in magnetic disks upon our desks. It’s a digital fourth...
Marco Polo in the Evening

Marco Polo in the Evening

  Beyond the shallows, into the deep Just one more thing before we sleep For Marco Polo’s been lost and found And lost again, then somehow drowned In games of sharks and minnows (If someone won, no one knows).   With reddened nose and wrinkled toes We all line up, we flex, we pose Lips are blue and goosebumps flair We shiver in the evening air With set and determined faces All divers please, take your places   It’s time for The Challenge.   Who can make the biggest splash In an epic combo of skill and brash The old, the young, the big, the small Crowd the board to join the brawl In this ongoing, yearly war From a hundred summers gone before   We tuck, we flap, we jump and slap Our bellies upon the water. (Oh, snap!) We fly high with fetching leaps And gainer back towards the deep The pencil thins compete with grace With daring flips and twists in space   But the hefties have it, they have it all Their Can Openers, their Cannonballs Are glorious, victorious walls of water The contest is declared a slaughter WIth tidal waves of epic size They drown our hopes and take the prize....

Milton Sirotta Gotta Hundred Zeros

When nine-year-old Milton Sirotta’s uncle asked him to come up with a name for a number that had a hundred zeros after it, he left oodles of possible words ending in “-illion” behind, and coined the word “Googol.”  In case you’re wondering, the number looks like this: 10,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000,­000. A googol is a number bigger than the number of bugs’ legs on the earth. It’s even bigger than all the pixels contained in the webpages on, well, Google. It’s not every nine year old that gets to name something so mind-boggling huge. He decided to go one step further, and suggested the  googolplex — a number that had as many zeroes as you could write, until you were simply too tired to write anymore. His wise uncle Edward thought  the definition required some refinement. They finally agreed that a googolplex was a number with a googol of zeros behind it. If you actually tried to write all those zeros, each the size of a period, you’d make it all the way to the edge of the known universe and still not be finished. Milton might have pointed out that by that time your hand might indeed be a bit fatigued. Edward Kasner, a math instructor from Colombia University, first published these words in 1940 in his book MATHEMATICS AND THE IMAGINATION. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_large_numbers      ...
J.R.R.Tolkien & The Lost Dog

J.R.R.Tolkien & The Lost Dog

While grading his students’ papers in the early 1930s, J.R.R.Tolkien came upon a blank sheet of paper and scribbled “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The rest is well-known history. Tolkien’s beloved tales about Middle Earth became so revered that every scrap of paper found in his file drawers after his death in 1973 has been nudged into publishable form. Browsing through a bookstore the other day, I found one of the last Tolkien stories to be published, the very charming ROVERANDOM (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). Tolkien’s four-year-old son Michael had a favorite toy, a little figure of a dog, cast in lead and painted with black and white spots. (The one pictured here belonged to my grandmother, who grew up in the same era as Michael Tolkien.) Young Michael named him Rover and carried him everywhere. But while the family vacationed on the Yorkshire coast in 1925, Michael went on a walk with his father and brother. He set Rover down on the rocky beach in order to skip stones, and in his excitement the dog was left. The family searched and searched, until a terrible storm blustered in. Huddled inside their small cottage, everyone knew Rover would be lost forever in the surging sea. With gentle humor and characteristic imagination, Tolkien made up a story to console his heartbroken son and calm his frightened children. In ROVERANDOM, Tolkien weaves a magical tale about a pert little dog turned into a toy by an offended wizard. Left by his boy on a rocky beach, Rover meets a sand-sorcerer who sends him on adventures. He visits the Man  in...