David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Automobiles, Books

Automobiles

• Michael Moore, author of Stupid White Men and a native of Flint, Michigan, drove Toyotas and Volkswagens. Occasionally, a friend would ask him why he didn’t buy a car that was built in the USA. When that happened, Mr. Moore would have his friend open the hood of his “American” car, and then he’d show his friend that the engine had a sticker saying “MADE IN BRAZIL” and the fan belt bore the lettering “MADE IN MEXICO.” In addition, the radio had a label saying, “MADE IN SINGAPORE.”

• Noted author C.G. Norris developed engine trouble and was standing helplessly by his car on the side of a road when a teenage boy came pedaling up to him on his bike. The teenage boy lifted the hood, fiddled with the engine for about 15 seconds, then started the car right up. Mr. Norris looked at the boy and asked, “Do you know what a split infinitive is?” The teenage boy admitted that he didn’t, and Mr. Norris said, “Thank God!”

• Children’s book author/illustrator David McPhail sometimes writes as he drives. Actually, that’s not quite true. He will think of a couple of sentences while driving, then stop the car and write the sentences down. While he was writing The Cereal Box, a trip that usually took 90 minutes turned into a three-and-a-half-hour trip.

Books

• In 1922, playwright Lillian Hellman graduated from high school, and her Uncle Jake gave her a ring as her graduation gift. Ms. Hellman, however, cared little for rings, so she sold it for $25 and used the money to buy something she really cared for — books. Later, she told her uncle that she had sold his gift to buy books. He looked at her for a moment, then said, “So you’ve got spirit after all. Most of the rest of them are made of sugar water.”

• As a boy, critic Orville Prescott very quickly learned to love books. While attending a dude ranch that was laughingly called a “school,” he was startled by the shout of “Fire!” At first he was pleasantly excited — until he discovered that his own cabin was burning. At that point, he startled everyone by rushing inside the cabin and coming out with an armload of singed books. The astonished onlookers burst into applause.

• During a dinner Cyril Clemens had with G.K. Chesterton, the question of “If one were stranded on a desert island, what book would one like to have?” came up. Mr. Chesterton answered, “If I were a politician who wanted to impress his constituents, I would take Plato or Aristotle, but if I did not want to show off, I would take Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding so that I could get away from the island as quickly as possible.”

• In the 1800s, many people did their own doctoring. A book titled Dr. Gunn’s Domestic Medicine even explained how to perform an amputation, saying that “any man, unless he was a fool or an idiot, could amputate an arm or a leg.” First, you needed the book and a few instruments. In addition, since this was in the days before anesthesia, you needed “half a dozen men to hold the victim down.”

• A man had the opportunity to publish Mark Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, but declined it. Years later, the man chanced to meet Mr. Twain, and told him, “I refused a book of yours and for this I stand without competitor as the prize ass of the 19th century.”

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Animals, Autographs

Animals

• E.B. White may be most famous for his children’s book Charlotte’s Web, in which a spider named Charlotte befriends a pig named Wilbur and saves his life by writing words in her web. The idea for the book came partly from Mr. White’s discomfort at raising a pig each year at his farm in Maine, only to butcher it when it was fully grown. In addition, one day he noticed a spider building a web in an outhouse, so he brought out a lamp and a long extension cord and watched the spider. From these experiences, and more, came Charlotte’s Web. By the way, sometimes people try to find hidden meanings in Charlotte’s Web, but Mr. White says, “Any attempt to find allegorical meanings is bound to end disastrously, for no meanings are in there. I ought to know.”

• Pioneer life could be difficult. In 1875, Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, was outside when she thought she saw a storm spring up on the horizon, then move closer. It wasn’t a storm — it was a cloud of grasshoppers. While Laura and her family hid in their house, the grasshoppers ate everything green, including the crops, the garden, the grass, and even the leaves in the trees. After eating everything, the grasshoppers moved west. Because the grasshoppers had destroyed his crops, Laura’s Pa walked 200 miles to eastern Minnesota to find work to support his family.

• John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath, once left a setter puppy named Toby alone for a few hours. Unfortunately, he left Toby alone with a manuscript. By the time Mr. Steinbeck returned to the room, Toby had destroyed half of the only copy of the manuscript — two months’ worth of writing. Nevertheless, Mr. Steinbeck did not become upset, saying later, “I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I’m not sure is good at all.” Instead, he sat down and rewrote the manuscript, which was published with this title: Of Mice and Men.

• In New York City, a photographer asked humorist Erma Bombeck to move slightly. She moved where the photographer wanted her to go, then posed — but the photographer had wanted her to move out of the way so he could photograph a dog that was appearing in the movie Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Autographs

• R.L. Stine, the writer of the Fear Street and Goosebumps children’s book series, started out as a writer of comedy; for a while, he edited Scholastic’s humor magazine, which was titled Bananas. When his first book for children, How to Be Funny, was published, he went to a book signing, at which he wore rabbit ears. During the entire afternoon of the book signing, he autographed exactly one book!

• Being a best-selling author can be hazardous to one’s health. Horror writer Stephen King spoke at a library in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, then he signed hundreds of autographs. Even so, some people were not able to get their books autographed — Mr. King’s hand developed so many blisters that he was forced to stop signing his autograph.

• In 1975, Quentin Crisp’s book The Naked Civil Servant, was published, and this very out and very effeminate gay man became a celebrity. Suddenly, taxi drivers who had driven by him even though their taxi was empty not only stopped for him, but they also began to ask for his autograph, saying, “The wife’s never going to believe this!”

• Saul Bellow and his wife had an argument one day, so she threw several eight-by-ten glossy photographs of him in the garbage. A few days later, a knock sounded on his door. Standing in the doorway was the porter. He was holding one of the glossy photographs, and he asked Mr. Bellow to sign it.

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Advertising, Alcohol, Animals

Advertising

• While working as an advertising writer for Macy’s, Margaret Fishback discovered that the famous department store had a two-foot cake tester on sale. She thought that the idea of a two-foot cake tester was ridiculous, so she wrote, “This cake tester will come in handy the next time you bake a cake two feet high.” However, this advertisement brought in more orders than Macy’s had two-foot cake testers. From this experience, Ms. Fishback and Macy’s learned that humor sells.

• Simon and Schuster once published a children’s book titled Dr. Dan the Bandage Man. As a publicity gimmick, they decided to include a half-dozen band-aids in each book, so publisher Richard Simon sent this telegram to a friend at Johnson and Johnson: “PLEASE SHIP TWO MILLION BAND-AIDS IMMEDIATELY.” The following day Mr. Simon received this telegram in reply: “BAND-AIDS ON THEIR WAY. WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU?”

• When horror writer Stephen King decided to live in England for a year, he knew exactly the kind of house he wanted to live in, so he put this advertisement in an English newspaper: “Wanted, a draughty Victorian house in the country with dark attic and creaking floorboards, preferably haunted.”

• G.K. Chesterton visited Broadway and Times Square at night when the scene was brightly lit by advertising signs. He gazed at the sight for a while, then said to a friend, “How beautiful it would be for someone who could not read.”

Alcohol

• In their book, The Perfect London Walk, writers Roger Ebert (the movie critic) and Daniel Curley (a short-story writer) describe what they consider to be the best walk in London — one that lasts for hours and takes the walker through the Hampstead Heath, the Spaniards Inn, Highgate Cemetery, etc. However, Mr. Curley warns the reader that the walk will take you past several pubs, and so you may be tempted away from your walk. In one memorable case, a man named John McHugh stopped at a pub and abandoned the walk after covering scarcely 150 yards.

• While traveling abroad, Mark Twain heard of an American student who had struggled to learn German for three whole months, but who had learned to say only “zwei glas,” which means “two glasses” (of beer). Still, the student reflected, he had learned those words very thoroughly.

• Percy Hammond, the drama critic, grew up in Cadiz, Ohio, in the late 19th century. One of his favorite memories was marching in a temperance parade as a small child and carrying a banner inscribed with this slogan: “Tremble, King Alcohol, for I shall grow up.”

Animals

• As a teenager, Gary Paulsen, author of the young adult novel Hatchet, was the favorite victim of a bullying street gang. Late one night, as he left his job at a bowling alley, he tried to find a new route home by leaving from the roof. As he climbed from the roof into an alley, he stepped on a ferocious dog. Frightened, he threw the dog half of a hamburger he was carrying, then he ran from the alley — right into the hands of members of the bullying street gang, who immediately started to beat him. Suddenly, the ferocious dog jumped out of the alley and began biting gang members. Gary gave the dog the rest of his hamburger, and after the dog bit the gang leader in another encounter, the gang left Gary strictly alone. (Eventually, Gary found the dog, now friendly to everyone except Gary’s enemies, a new life on a farm.)

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David Bruce: Books Anecdotes

• In a war, libraries and books can be destroyed. Knowing that, Alia Muhammad Baker, the chief librarian of the Central Library in Basra, Iraq, worried about the entry of the armies led by the Americans and the British into Iraq in a successful effort to topple the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein. In the library were books in English, books in Arabic, and a Koran written in Spanish. Also in the library were manuscripts that were hundreds of years old, and in the library is a book about the Prophet Muhammad that dates from about the year 1300. In early April 2003 the British came into Basra, and Ms. Baker determined to save the books. She ended up saving approximately 30,000 books, which was about 70 percent of the library’s collection. She mourns the books that were destroyed before she could move them: “It was like a battle when the books got burned. I imagined that those books, those history and culture and philosophy books, were crying, ‘Why, why, why?’” She points out, “In the Koran, the first thing God said to Muhammad was ‘Read.’” Before the war started, she tried but failed to get permission from the governor of Basra to move the books to safety. When the war started, an antiaircraft gun was placed on the library’s roof, making it a military target. Ms. Baker began smuggling books out of the library, placing them in her car, and taking them home where they would be safe. On 6 April 2003 British soldiers entered Basra, and she became even more worried about the books, especially with looting going on in the city. By then, government and military officials had abandoned the library. Next door to the library was a restaurant: the Hamdan. She asked one of the owners for help. Looters had taken away the library’s carpets, lights, and furniture, and she wanted to save the books. Mr. Muhammad said, “What could I do? It is the whole history of Basra.” Mr. Muhammad, his brothers, and his employees helped to move books from the library, over a seven-foot-high fence, and into the restaurant. Hussein Muhammad al-Salem al-Zambqa, a shopkeeper, said, “The books related to Saddam Hussein, we left them.” Iraqis heard about what was going on, and they helped, including some Iraqis who were illiterate. Mr. al-Zambqa said, “The people who carried the books, not all of them were educated. Some of them could not write or could not read, but they knew they were precious books.” It is fortunate that they moved as many books as they did because the Central Library burned down. Once Basra grew calm, Ms. Baker and her husband had the books moved to their house and entrusted some books to friends and library employees. In 2004, the library was rebuilt and Ms. Baker again became chief librarian.

• Lynn Peril, publisher of the zine Mystery Date, loves books. Her parents read to her frequently when she was very young. Ms. Peril says, “I was never taught to read; I simply woke up one day and discovered I could. I remember going downstairs and telling my mother, ‘Hey, Mom—I can read!’” Her uncle lived surrounded by books. After he died, and when her aunt moved out of the house, her aunt let all the nephews and nieces take the books they wanted. Ms. Peril got a lot of first editions in excellent condition, often with dust jackets, because whenever an author such as Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, or Eugene O’Neill came out with a new book, her uncle would quickly buy a copy and read it. She reads the books, and she enjoys going to an antiquarian bookseller near where she lives, looking at the shelves, and saying, “Hey, I have that book.”

• Eric Blair completed a manuscript he titled A Scullion’s Diary, about his travels as a tramp, but it was rejected frequently, including by such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, and he gave up on getting it published. Therefore, he gave it to a friend, Mabel Fierz, and told her to keep the paper clips but to get rid of the manuscript. Fortunately, Mabel was interested in literature and writers, and she gave it to a literary agent, Leonard Moore, who agreed to represent Mr. Blair. The manuscript was published as Down and Out in Paris and London, and Mr. Blair took the pseudonym George Orwell and wrote Animal Farmand 1984. By the way, the manuscript of Animal Farmwas nearly destroyed in a bombing attack on London by Germany in World War II. Fortunately, Mr. Blair retrieved the manuscript from the wreckage left by a bomb.

• When J.K. Rowling wrote her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, her agent sent it to Bloomsbury Publishing, where an editor named Barry Cunningham wanted to publish the book. However, he needed to get the permission of the company’s directors to do so. A colleague of his, Rosemund de la Hay, came up with an idea to get the company’s directors to consider the book carefully. They enclosed a package of Smarties candy with each Harry Pottermanuscript that they sent to the company’s directors. Because the Smarties Prize is awarded to the best children’s book published in Great Britain each year, this was a way of indicating that they thought that the book was good enough to win that prize. In fact, after the book was published, it did win the Smarties Prize.

• Some people don’t understand punctuation, as author Judy Blume discovered when she found her book Are You There, God? It Me, Margaret, in a bookstore in the religion section. She told the bookstore employee, “That book doesn’t belong with the Bibles!” The employee said, “Yes, it does.” To prove that the book belonged with the Bibles, the bookstore employee read from the copy on the jacket of the book: “Margaret Simon: twelve chats with God.” Actually, the copy on the jacket said, “Margaret Simon, twelve, chats with God.”

• He who is able to write a book and does not write it is as one who has lost a child.” — Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.

• “Should not the Society of Indexers be known as Indexers, Society of, The?”—Keith Waterhouse.

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David Bruce: Books Anecdotes

• James Marshall (illustrator) and Harry Allard (author) created the characters of Miss Nelson, a teacher who is so nice that her students sometimes take advantage of her, and of Miss Viola Swamp, “the meanest substitute teacher in the whole world.” The two characters may possibly be one and the same. Miss Nelson may or may not disguise herself as Miss Viola Swamp when it is necessary to restore order to her class or to make the football team win a game. Mr. Marshall once did a book-signing event in California. A teacher called him ahead of time and said, “I’ve got this wonderful idea. I’m going to come dressed as Viola Swamp. While you’re signing books, I’m going to beat you with a ruler!” Mr. Marshall did not like the idea and said to her, “This is not a good idea. First of all, there are going to be people there who aren’t going to know who Viola Swamp is. This could only work — possibly — in a school setting.” The teacher replied, “Oh, I’ve got to do it. I’ve got to do it.” At the book-signing event, Mr. Marshall heard a scream coming from outside and he thought, Well, she’s arrived. The cosplay was partially successful. The teacher dressed and looked just like Miss Viola Swamp, and she really pounded Mr. Marshall with the ruler. However, a little five-year-old Japanese girl witnessed the cosplay, and Mr. Marshall remembers that “the little girl — well, they had to carry her out like a surfboard! She just froze. I think she’s probably in therapy to this day.” Mr. Marshall was motivated to be an illustrator of children’s books. He had taught for a while and was not fond of it. Occasionally, he had dreams where he was teaching after having signed a 50-year contract with a high school. He would wake up in a cold sweat and scream, “But I want to publish books! I want to draw!” Then he would go to his drawing table and draw something good.

• Teller of Penn and Teller fame was greatly influenced by a high-school teacher named D.G. Rosenbaum, who was also an actor and a magician. He wore pince-nez and a black goatee, and he smoked black cigarettes. On a snowy day that forced many students to miss school, he read a 1916 short story by Max Beerbohm titled “Enoch Soames” in which the title character, a man with a big ego, made a deal with the devil in which he exchanged his soul for a magical trip to the future—2:10 P.M. on 3 June 1997 in the Round Reading Room at the British Museum—so he could look at the shelves of books that would have by then been written about him. Unfortunately, he discovers that he has been forgotten. The only place his name appears in the library is in a short story by Max Beerbohm. Teller flew to England and at 2:10 P.M. on 3 June 1997 he was in Round Reading Room at the British Museum along with about a dozen people who had been impressed by the short story. In fact, a man did appear out of the stacks and did ask about Enoch Soames and why there were no volumes about him on the shelves before he disappeared back into the stacks. One of the people in the Round Reading Room said, “I’m having to fight tears.” Did Teller hire an actor? He said, “Taking credit for it that day would be a terrible thing—a terrible, terrible thing. That’s answering the question that you must not answer.”

• Walt Disney was a story man: He knew what made a good story. When he decided to make a movie out of Mary Poppins, he read the book carefully. He gave a copy of the book to songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and said, “My daughters and wife think this is very good. I read it and think there’s a lot in it. Read this and tell me what you think.” They quickly read it twice and then scheduled a meeting with Walt. The book was a series of short stories about Mary Poppins rather than a novel, so they chose the short stories that they thought would make a good movie. Walt listened to them for a while, and then he asked to look at their copy of the book. They had underlined the six chapters that they thought would work best as a movie. Walt then showed them his copy of the book. He had underlined the same six chapters that they had underlined. Walt certainly knew his audiences. When his nephew’s wife had a baby, Walt went to the hospital to see it. It was the middle of the Baby Boom and so lots of babies were there. Walt said, “Look at that! Seven years from now, they’ll all be out there watching Snow White!”

• Sandra Cisneros, the Chicana author of The House on Mango Street, grew up in a family without a lot of money. Her mother made sure that she had a library card, and young Sandra read many books. For a long time, Sandra thought that books were so precious that they had to be kept in a special building—a library. Her love of reading led to a love of writing. She often wrote when she was young, an activity that her mother encouraged. Whenever Sandra, who had two older and four younger brothers, was trying to write but was being bothered by her younger brothers, she would yell, “Mom! The kids are in here!” Her mother would make her younger brothers leave so Sandra could write.

• Sometimes, even good writers sell few copies. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, authors of Jane EyreWuthering Heights, and the sustained feminist novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, once published Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, using these pseudonyms instead of their real names. They sold two copies.

• As you would expect, humorist Dave Barry is able to make even a list of Frequently Asked Questions (and their answers) funny. For example, this is one FAQ: “Where can I buy Dave’s books? (We’re not kidding, this is a frequently asked question!)” And this is Dave’s answer: “At a bookstore.”

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David Bruce’s Smashwords Bookstore: Retellings of Classic Literature, Anecdote Collections, Discussion Guides for Teachers of Literature, Collections of Good Deed Accounts, etc. Some eBooks are free.

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THE TROJAN WAR

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SHAKESPEARE: 38 PLAYS

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CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE’S COMPLETE PLAYS: RETELLINGS

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John Ford’s The Broken Heart: A Retelling, by David Bruce

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William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:A Retelling in Prose, by David Bruce

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Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist:A Retelling in Prose

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David Bruce: Books Anecdotes

When Stephenie Meyer was searching for a location in which to set Twilight, a novel about a teenaged girl named Bella Swan who falls in love with a vampire named Edward Cullen who has been 17 years old for over a century, she researched the rainiest spot in the United States and discovered the Olympic Peninsula, and a little place called Forks, in the state of Washington. This became the setting for her novel, the first in a very popular series of novels, and a place that many tourists go to. The residents of Forks mainly enjoy the attention. When Forks Chamber of Commerce Director Marcia Bingham asked a couple of educators, David and Kim McIrvin, to allow their home to be designated as the Swans’ home, they agreed. (Bella’s home has two stories, and the McIrvins’ home is the only house with two stories on their block.) A sign that says, “Home of the Swans,” is out front. Carlisle Cullen is the fictional vampire who brought the family of vampires together. He is a doctor, and if you go to the Forks hospital, a parking spot has a sign that says, “Dr. Cullen: Reserved Parking Only.”

David Jenkins has twice been used as a character in a book, including a character who is balding, portly, and American in The Paradise Trail by his friend Duncan Campbell, although Mr. Jenkins had a full head of flowing locks, a flat stomach, and a Welsh heritage—a heritage he still has. Therefore, Mr. Jenkins asks, “But however grand a role you play in however important a book, does it encapsulate the real person?” For example, Hubert Duggan is a real person who appears (under names other than his own) in two important novels: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. In A Dance to the Music of Time, he is “dashing but doomed.” And Mr. Waugh helped Mr. Duggan return to the Catholic faith when Mr. Duggan was on his deathbed, a scene that appears in Brideshead Revisited. It seems that Mr. Duggan must be inspiring, as he inspired two novelists to write about him. So what was he like in real life? The late 6th Marquess of Bath, who knew Mr. Duggan well, says, “He was the most boring man I met in my entire life.”

Brian Garfield is the author of Death Wish, a novel about a man who becomes a vigilante after hoodlums rape his daughter and murder his wife. It became a very popular film starring Charles Bronson, who also starred in four sequels. Mr. Garfield got the idea for the novel after discovering that someone had used a knife to slash the canvas top of his convertible. The night was cold, he had a two- or three-hour drive home, and as he drove, he was thinking, “I’ll kill the son of a b*tch.” Mr. Garfield says, “Of course by the time I got home and thawed out, I realized the vandal must have had a strong sharp knife (convertible-top canvas is a very tough fabric to cut) and in reality I didn’t want to be anywhere near him. But then came the thought: What if a person had that kind of experience and got mad and never came out of it?” Writing the novel came easy to him—it took two weeks. Mr. Garfield jokes, “Several alleged friends asked, ‘What took so long?’”

In 2007, Fantagraphics published an 878-page book titled Laura Warholic: or The Sexual Intellectual, which is the first novel written by Alexander Theroux in 20 years. Of course, Fantagraphics usually publishes comic books and graphic novels, not envelope-pushing novels, but Mr. Theroux had published two monographs with Fantagraphics: “The Enigma of Al Capp” and “The Strange Case of Edward Gorey.” Because Fantagraphics was the only publisher willing to publish such a long novel without excessive editorial meddling, Mr. Theroux was happy to have Fantagraphics as the novel’s publisher. However, he does acknowledge that his pay for writing the novel is not much. According to Mr. Theroux, “For this novel I earned less than a Burger King tweenie in a paper hat. But nowhere should you compromise. You have to find plenitude in your work and redemption in your dreams.”

In 2008, Paul Constant, book critic for the Seattle newspaper The Stranger, attended BookExpo America (BEA), the annual book-industry convention. One thing he noticed was what he called “unscrupulous booksellers” who grabbed as many free advance reader’s copies as possible so that they could later sell them online—illegally. Of course, the publishers are aware that unscrupulous booksellers do this, and so they have a rule against bringing rolling luggage carts to the convention because the carts can be filled with many, many free advance reader’s copies. However, Mr. Constant writes that “some demented booksellers find ways around that: One woman wheels into the hall in a wheelchair and then stands up and wheels the empty chair around to stack books in the seat like a wheelbarrow.”

Mem Fox, the Australian young people’s author of Possum Magic, grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) in Africa, along with her sisters, who were born after her. One sister, Jan, was always tired, and their mother worried that she was suffering from an African disease named bilharzias, a main symptom of which was drowsiness. (Her mother even got Jan a doctor.) However, the real reason that Jan was always tired was that she stayed up late at night reading books under her bed covers. (When Jan was 13 years old, her family visited their native Australia. Jan read War and Peace during the long plane trip from Africa to Australia—something that enraged Mem, who knew that Jan was clever but thought that she was being a showoff about it. )

As a kid, Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight understood the value of reading. In his hometown of Orrville, Ohio, the library posted a list of the 10 kids in town who had read the most books that week. Each week, young Bobby’s name was on that list — along with the names of nine girls.

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David Bruce: Books Anecdotes

While in France, William Donaldson bought a pornographic novel and started reading it in public, first taking the precaution of putting a different book jacket on the novel. The book jacket was for a compilation of essays against the A-bomb, including essays by Bertrand Russell, Philip Toynbee, and other intellectuals. Peter Ustinov happened to be walking by, and seeing the book jacket, he asked Mr. Donaldson if he could look at the book. Mr. Donaldson readily gave him permission and handed the book to him. Mr. Ustinov read one filthy paragraph, and then looked at the book jacket. Then he read another filthy paragraph and again looked at the book jacket. Finally, speechless for once in his life, he handed the book to Mr. Donaldson and exited.

When Carl Linnaeus, the father of scientific classification and naming, got his degree as a doctor of medicine, two people wanted him to be a guest living in their home. One person was Dr. Johannes Burman, who needed help writing a book; another was George Clifford, who was often ill and wanted a doctor living in his home. Dr. Burman had asked Dr. Linnaeus first, and so Dr. Linnaeus was living in his home and helping him with his book. One day Dr. Burman visited Mr. Clifford and admired one of Mr. Clifford’s books. Mr. Clifford told Dr. Berman, “I happen to have two copies. I will give you one if you will let me have Linnaeus.” Dr. Burman agreed, and he traded away Dr. Linnaeus for a book.

The ancient city of Alexandria had an excellent and important library composed of papyrus scrolls. Whenever ships entered the harbor, they were searched for books that could be copied and added to the library. King Ptolemy I even gave the city of Athens 15 talents in gold—a HUGE sum of money—as a deposit so he could borrow the city’s collection of plays. The deal was that the gold would be returned after the Alexandrian librarians had copied the manuscripts and safely returned them. However, King Ptolemy I decided to keep the original manuscripts and gave the city of Athens the copies, thus forfeiting the 15 talents in gold.

When children’s book author Barbara Park—creator of Junie B. Jones—was in high school, her mother worked as a secretary in Barbara’s high school library. This worked in Barbara’s favor one day when she realized that she had forgotten to read a book she had to write a report about. Barbara went to the high school librarian and asked for help. Since the librarian knew both Barbara and Barbara’s mother, the librarian gave Barbara enough information about the book that Barbara was able to write a book report that got a passing grade.

Independent bookstore owner (and essayist) Paul Constant is aware of this fact: “Books tend to attract freaks.” He is aware of repulsive freaks, as when an old man returned a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf because it was “defective”: the introduction had been written by a Jew. On the other hand, some freaks can be charming. Mr. Constant once witnessed a young woman on a bus who was so engrossed in reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot that she didn’t even notice when right in front of her a fistfight started.

Jane Cummings and George Clarke lived in the house of the parents of poet E.E. Cummings; they were E.E.’s aunt and uncle. Frequently, Jane would read aloud novels such as Treasure Island or The Old Curiosity Shop to the family in the evening. One volume about the Tower of London, where important political prisoners were imprisoned—and sometimes tortured, murdered, or executed—was especially popular with George. After they had eaten dinner, he would request, “Jane, let’s have some ruddy gore!”

Kyle Zimmer is the president of First Book, an organization that gives books to young children who could not otherwise be able to own books. Many of the children are very appreciative of the books they receive. One young child bounced around from one homeless shelter to another, but the one possession that the child fought to keep was a book he had been given by First Book. In addition, Mr. Zimmer once gave a book to a child who smiled, then said, “This is my big chance!”

Ursula K. Le Guin had heard about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but she resisted reading it because of what she regarded as the Saturday Review’s “fulsome” reviews of the series of novels. Finally, she took out The Fellowship of the Ring from the Emory University library. She started reading it, and the next day she hurried back to the library, “in terrible fear” that the other volumes of the trilogy had been checked out. They hadn’t, and she read constantly for the next few days.

When she was a 16-year-old teenager growing up in New Jersey, rocker Patty Smith craved poetry. A bus depot she knew about had a collection of used books—mostly pulp fiction. However, among the dross was a volume of poems by Rimbaud titled Illuminations. Lacking money, she stole the book—then replaced that volume with a book she owned but didn’t want. Ms. Smith says about the Rimbaud book, “I was never sorry that I nicked it.”

A rabbi in Poland once wrote a little book, although many other rabbis wrote big books. Asked why his book was so little, the rabbi explained that the people he served worked hard, long hours, and they were tired at the end of the day. If he had written a big book, many people would read a page or two, then go to sleep. But since he had written a little book of distilled wisdom, the people were much more likely to actually read all of it.

Like so many of us, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho owned too many books. He put them on shelves, and when he returned home one day, he discovered that the shelves had collapsed. Reflecting that if he had been home he might have crushed to death by the books and shelves, he decided to greatly reduce the number of books he owned—to 400, which he says is still a high number if he intends to reread all those books.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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