David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Problem-Solving

Problem-Solving

• Children’s book author Betsy Byars has a trick for making herself write when she doesn’t want to write: She thinks of chores that need to be done. For example, she will think to herself, “All right, today you are either going to have to write two pages or you are going to have to defrost the refrigerator.” Sometimes, she will defrost the refrigerator and then think of another chore to do. Eventually, she hits on a chore that makes writing a better option — and then she writes. She also used her young children as critics. They would read what she wrote and if they felt themselves losing interest, they would draw an arrow pointing in the margin of that passage. Sometimes these downwards-pointing arrows appeared in her nightmares. In a way, her husband also served as a critic. Ms. Byars would try to write a murder mystery, but her husband constantly was able to guess the identity of the murderer after reading only two pages of her manuscript.

• When he was a teenager, and before he became a famous author, Walter Dean Myers got into trouble as a member of a gang in Harlem. One way the gang members made money was to hire themselves out as thugs — if someone wanted a certain person beaten up, he could hire members of the gang to do the beating. Once, Mr. Myers went along as another gang member attempted to carry out a beating, but this time the gang member had been set up. The “victim” was a police officer who ran after them. Both of them got away for the time being, but Mr. Myers realized that the police knew the other gang member’s name and that it would be only a matter of time before they learned that he was involved. Therefore, to avoid trouble with the police, he joined the United States Army. It worked. A couple of days after he had left for boot camp, the police arrived at his home to question him.

• Gay author Michael Thomas Ford once ran into problems with a couple of gay-bashing teenage boys who did such things as steal Mr. Ford’s rainbow flag, smash the windows of cars displaying rainbow stickers, and force a lesbian couple to move from the neighborhood. Mr. Ford responded by buying 10 more rainbow flags, which he and his neighbors displayed. The next time Mr. Ford saw the teenage boys, he told them, “See all these flags. This means there are more of us than there are of you. Don’t you ever forget that.” The harassment stopped.

• Jane Austen wrote such novels as Pride and Prejudice at Chawton Cottage, and she tried to keep her writing secret from people other than family and close friends. Leading to the room where she wrote was a door that creaked. The door was never fixed so that it would not creak — Ms. Austen used the creak as a warning that someone was coming, and she hid her writing before her visitor arrived.

• Lesbian author Gail Sausser used to live with several lesbian housemates, all of whom were creative problem-solvers. For example, whenever the house got too dirty, they would decide to throw a party, which motivated everyone to clean to get the house ready for guests.

• Flowers can be expensive, and so living next door to a cemetery has advantages. Jamie Tevis, wife of novelist Walter Tevis (author of The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth) used to get flowers to brighten their table from the wreaths in the cemetery.

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume — Practical Jokes, Problem-Solving

Practical Jokes

• Sometimes, practical jokers just can’t get a break. Bored while waiting to pay the toll on the Venetian Causeway in Miami, Calvin Godfrey, a writer for the Miami New Times, looked under his seat to see what he could see. Finding a can of shaving cream that had fallen out of a grocery bag long ago, he decided to see if he could make the tollbooth worker laugh. He bearded himself with the shaving cream, drove up to the tollbooth, and paid the toll. The tollbooth worker did not react — at all — to the shaving-cream beard. Other attempts to make the tollbooth worker laugh — such as driving with a live, loose chicken beside him and eating a messy lemon meringue pie without utensils — also failed to make the tollbooth worker laugh. Mr. Godfrey then did some investigating and interviewed Delfin Molins, the Miami-Dade County Public Works Department public information officer. Mr. Molins explained that tollbooth workers undergo training in not laughing at such antics.

• The founder and publisher of The New Yorker was Raoul Fleischmann, who was very proud of a set of Chinese dishes he and his wife owned and which they used at special dinners. Their friend Arthur H. Samuels had been to many dinners at their house and had heard them talk about the dishes many times. At one Fleischmann dinner, Mr. Samuels listened as Mr. Fleischmann began to talk about his dishes, then he rose and shouted, “If I have to hear about this goddamn china once more ….” Then he picked up his plate and threw into the fireplace, breaking it. After enjoying the look at the Fleischmanns’ face, he showed them their real, unbroken plate and explained that he had thrown and broken a cheap imitation he had purchased prior to the dinner.

• As you would expect, the staff of MAD magazine could be pretty wild and crazy. One of MAD publisher William M. Gaines’s practical jokes was to fill the water cooler with white wine. In addition, before he took his staff on a trip to Africa, he gave everybody what he called malaria pills and ordered them to swallow them right away. Then he pretended to get a telephone call from a doctor who told him about a mix-up at the pharmacy: “DON’T TAKE THE PILL! THEY’RE POISON!”

• John Steinbeck was a practical joker. One day, when he was a student at Stanford University, he rigged the bells so one morning they played the drinking song “How Dry I Am.”

Problem-Solving

• Reading an ancient manuscript can be difficult. The Archimedes Codex contains a copy of the work of this ancient scientist. The handwritten copy was made in the 10th century, more than 1,000 years after the time of Archimedes. A couple of hundred years after the copy was made, a scribe named John Myronas took the pages apart, erased the text, then wrote new text — that of a prayer book — over the erased text of Archimedes. Using modern technology, the text of Archimedes can be read. The modern technology allows both sets of text — Archimedes’ work and the prayer book — to appear on a computer screen. The words of the prayer book appear in one color, and the ancient Greek words of Archimedes appear in another color. Translation of the text is fascinating to scholars, who have discovered that Archimedes used the mathematical concept of infinity centuries before the concept became widely used in mathematics in the 17th century.

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Poets, Politics

Poets

• Occasionally, poet Edwin Markham was a lucky man. For example, he once was digging for soaproot and found something apparently lost by a prospector long ago: a bag filled with pieces of gold. Another bit of luck was seeing an exhibition of a painting titled The Man with the Hoe by Jean Francois Millet. The painting inspired him to create a poem with the same title, he published the poem in the San Francisco Examiner, and suddenly Mr. Markham was a famous and respected poet.

• When she was a young woman, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote the poem “Renascence,” which contained mature imagery of death and rebirth. Poets Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke read the poem, but until they met Ms. Millay in person, they refused to believe that “some sweet young thing of 20” had written the poem, writing her instead to say that its author must have been “a brawny male of 45.”

• In Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall,” a character says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Poet and playwright T.S. Eliot once asked Mr. Frost what that sentence — a New England proverb — meant. Mr. Frost said that he was not surprised that Mr. Eliot asked that particular question: “Eliot’s characters never know boundaries, not even of each other’s beds.”

• During the reign of King Charles I, poet George Withers was condemned to death, but rival poet Sir John Denham appealed to the king to relent because if Mr. Withers should die, Sir John would then be the worst poet in England. The appeal was successful — Charles I relented.

• Alexander the Great was once asked whether he would prefer to be Homer, the author of the Iliad, or Achilles, the hero of the Iliad. He replied, “What do you think? Would you rather win first prize at the Olympic Games or be the man who announces the winners?”

Politics

• When Norman Mailer ran for Mayor of New York, his running mate was Jimmy Breslin. Their rallying cry was “Vote the rascals in!” Both writers were known for living rather than merely existing, and when they spoke to police students at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, they ran into a police officer who asked Mr. Mailer, “If you and Breslin go ape on the same evening, who will run the city?” Mr. Mailer, of course, was an original (as was Mr. Breslin). Mr. Mailer had a column in the Village Voice for a while, but he quit after four months because a mistake in copy-editing had changed his nuance into nuisance. Obviously, Mr. Mailer’s beliefs, whether in literature or politics, were strong. After deciding to vote for Bobby Kennedy, whom he thought had a prep-school arrogance but was capable of greatness, Mr. Mailer wrote, “To vote for a man who is neuter is to vote for the plague. I would rather vote for a man on the assumption he is a hero and have him turn into a monster than vote for a man who can never be a hero.”

• Stephen Elliot, editor of Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica, writes and speaks often about his sexual experiences. For example, he wrote a sexual memoir that he titled My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up. Of course, another of his interests is political, and he wrote a book titled Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process. Occasionally, politics can interfere with the pursuit of sex. For example, he met a woman online, then he met her in person. Unfortunately, she told him that she had voted for George W. Bush in 2004. Mr. Elliott says, “I was like, great, I just wasted two hours. I mean, OK, in 2000, I’ll give you a pass. Nobody knew. But in ’04?”

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — People with Handicaps, Playwrights

People with Handicaps

• Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left his body almost totally incapacitated although his mind was fine. He was able to control only his left eye, but by blinking he dictated a book to freelance book editor Claude Mendibil, who recited to him the letters of the French alphabet by their frequency of use. When she pronounced the correct letter, Mr. Bauby blinked his left eye. With practice, she was able to guess the word he wanted after learning the first few letters. The title of the book he dictated, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, refers to his life. His mind — the butterfly — was still active, but it was trapped in a body that no longer functioned properly — the diving bell. The book became a best seller, and it was made into a critically acclaimed movie with the same title. The process by which the book was dictated could have been disheartening, but Ms. Mendibil says that she cried only once. It happened when he was dictating a passage about his two young children, Céleste and Théophile. Ms. Mendibil says, “I have a child, and I suddenly realized what it would be to be next to her and not be able to take her in my arms. The tears rose, and I had to go outside for five minutes.”. When she returned, Mr. Bauby used eye blinks to tell her, “You look beautiful when you cry.”

• From age seven, James Thurber was blind in one eye, but he never stopped looking at the world in a humorous way, writing such famous stories as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” He was also famous for his humorous drawings that appeared in The New Yorker, although many people felt that a child had created the doodle-like drawings and although some parents even sent in examples of their children’s drawings to show that they were better than Mr. Thurber’s drawings. Later in life, Mr. Thurber began to have trouble with his good eye, and he was forced to stop using a typewriter. He began to write his stories by hand on paper, but his poor eyesight forced him to write only 20 words per page. Eventually, he was unable to write his humorous stories on paper, but he refused to let even that stop him. Almost totally blind, Mr. Thurber created the stories in his mind, memorized them, and dictated them to a person who wrote down the words he spoke. Other people may have become bitter with the loss of their eyesight, but Mr. Thurber kept laughing, and in his humorous stories he made it easy for other people to laugh, too.

Playwrights

• Early in his career as a playwright, August Wilson found writing dialogue difficult. He once asked his friend and fellow playwright Rob Penny, “How do you make characters talk?” Mr. Penny replied, “You don’t. You listen to them.” When writing his play Jitney, Mr. Wilson listened to his characters. He says, “I found that exhilarating. It felt like this was what I’d been looking for, something that was mine, that would enable me to say anything.” Unfortunately, his play was rejected — twice — by the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, leading Mr. Wilson to wonder what to do next. His thinking took the form of a conversation with himself: “Maybe it’s not as good as you think. You have to write a better play.” “I’ve already written the best play I can write.” “Why don’t you write above your talent?” “Oh, man, how can you do that?” “Well, you can write beneath it, can’t you?” “Oh, yeah.” Of course, he did continue to write plays. His manner of writing was unusual. He wrote while standing up, and he had a punching bag by his side. According to John Lahr, “When Wilson was in full flow and the dialogue was popping, he’d stop, pivot, throw a barrage of punches, then turn back to work.”

• Caesar Augustus once wrote a tragedy titled Ajax, about Ajax the Greater, a mythical ancient Greek hero who, after the events described in the Iliad, committed suicide by falling on his sword. However, Augustus was unhappy with his tragedy, so he destroyed it. When someone asked what had happened to his Ajax, Augustus replied, “Fell on his eraser.”

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Newbery Medal, Old Age

Newbery Medal

• A couple of mishaps occurred when Betsy Byars accepted the Newbery Medal for her book The Summer of the Swans. Her favorite dessert, blueberry cheesecake, was served at the ceremony, but before she gave her speech she was so nervous that she couldn’t eat any of it. Near the end of her speech, she started to think about the cheesecake and she started to read her speech more quickly. Unfortunately, when she was finished with her speech and she went to the dessert table, all of her favorite dessert was gone. In addition, a couple of teenage boys wearing pageboy costumes and carrying banners led the VIPs to their seats of honor at the beginning of the ceremony. This pleased Ms. Byars, but she heard one of the teenage boys say to the other teenage boy, “I could just kill my mom for making me do this.”

• When children’s book author Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal (which is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished American book published that year in children’s literature) for her book The Giver, she was on a ship traveling in Antarctica and had no one with whom to share the good news. (Ms. Lowry likes to travel alone.) Therefore, she turned to a total stranger and said, “You’ve probably never heard of this, but I just won the Newbery Medal.” Actually, the stranger had heard of the Newbery Medal, which is very famous among librarians: “My goodness,” the stranger said. “I’m the former president of the American Library Association.”

Old Age

• Mark Twain retained his sense of humor in his old age. When his wife, Livy, worried that his spending lots of time in bed reading and writing might sap his strength, she had their daughter Clara read him a biographical passage about the poet William Cullen Bryant, who at age 80 was still taking vigorous and invigorating early-morning walks. Mr. Twain said, “Mr. Bryant was wonderful to do those early risings, and all that at eighty. If ever I get to be eighty, I mean to do them, too.” When he was even older, and a widower, he built and lived in a house he called Stormfield. Quickly, burglars stole the silverware from the house. Also quickly, Mr. Twain posted this note on the front door of the house: “To the next burglar. There is nothing but plated ware in this house, now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining-room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing.” Before he died, he felt ill. Of course, he was widely loved by the reading public, and many fans sent him home remedies in hopes that they would make him feel better. He replied, using this letter: “Dear Sir (or Madam). I try every remedy sent to me. I am now on no. 67. Yours is 2,653. I am looking forward to its beneficial results.” In his old age, Mr. Twain was still capable of savage satire: He advocated the passing of a law that would forbid white people from lynching black people on Christmas.

• Lewis Carroll’s title character in his books about Alice — Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass— was based in part on Alice Liddell. Unfortunately, after she grew up, they had a falling out. One possible explanation is that Mr. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Ludwidge Dodgson, fell in love with her and she declined to marry him. Whatever happened, he no longer wanted anything to do with her. Late in her life, after she had become a widow, she fell on hard times, and she had only one thing of value — the original manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, which Mr. Dodgson had originally titled Alice’s Adventures Underground. Even though Mr. Dodgson had grown to dislike her, the manuscript provided for her in her old age, for she sold the manuscript for $74,259

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Mothers, Names

Mothers

• When Judy Blume received the news that her first picture book, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo, was going to be published, she went into her son’s playroom and started throwing a plaything called Silly Sand around. She also picked up her son, Larry, and her son’s playmate, Laurie Murphy, and spun them around. Unfortunately, this made Laurie cry. Ms. Blume says, “She went home and told her mother that Larry’s mother had gone crazy.”

• Author Alice Walker attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. When she went away to attend that school, her mother, Minnie Tallulah, gave her three gifts: a typewriter, a suitcase, and a sewing machine. Alice regarded the gifts as symbols of independence, and as symbols of love. Her mother worked for only $20 a week, and to pay for the three gifts she had saved for years.

• Artists and writers must be creative. St. Louis cartoonist Sacha Mardou once wrote and illustrated an erotic comic in which a woman seduced a man who was blind. This worried her mother, who was afraid that the comic was autobiographical. Ms. Mardou says, “When I told her I had made all that stuff up, she thought it was genius. She was also very relieved.”

Names

• E.B. “Andy” White picked up his nickname while attending Cornell University. The President of Cornell at the time was Andrew D. White, and students gave the nickname “Andy” to any student with the last name “White.” E.B. much preferred Andy to his real first name: Elwyn. Names were important to Andy. In his book Charlotte’s Web, he was going to name the spider Charlotte Epeira after the Latin name for the Grey Cross spider, but he took a closer look at the spiders in his barn and discovered that they were a different species. Therefore, he changed the name to Charlotte A. Cavatica.

• Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee has a terrible memory, so when he creates a new character, as a memory device he will have both the first and last names of the same character begin with the same letter. That way, if he can remember one of the names of the character, he will know at least that the other name begins with the same letter. These are some of the names of characters he has created: Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, and Stephen Strange.

• Jane Austen, author of Sense and Sensibility, never married, although she was engaged once — briefly. Still, when she was a young teenager, she tore a sheet from the parish register of her father the clergyman. On it, she wrote some imagined possible names of her future husband: Edmund Arthur William Mortimer, of Liverpool, and Henry Frederick Howard Fitzwilliam, of London. Jane being Jane, of course, one name was humorous: Jack Smith.

• When he was four years old, C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia Chronicles, took a big step toward independence by announcing that he had a new name: Jacksy. His parents and brother went along with the new name, which was later shortened to Jacks, and still later shortened to Jack, the nickname that he kept for the rest of his life.

• Some children ask funny questions. Children’s book author Ann M. Martin, creator of the Babysitters Club series of books, was at a book signing when a young girl asked her, “Do you know what the ‘M.’ in your name stands for?” (By the way, it stands for Matthews.)

• Author Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, used to be named Hathorne, but because one of his ancestors was John Hathorne, a justice at the Salem Witch Trials which resulted in the deaths of 20 people, he changed his name.

• G.K. Chesterton named his pet Scotch terrier “Quoodle” after a character in one of his early novels so that when people asked about the unusual name, he could tell them about his novel.

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books — Volume 3 ‚ Money, Mothers

Money

• Mark Twain told this story in Life on the Mississippi: A riverboat pilot named Stephen was out of money and in New Orleans. Aware of Stephen’s plight, a steamboat captain offered him the job of piloting a steamboat up the Mississippi — but at a salary of $125 instead of Stephen’s usual salary of $250. Having no choice, Stephen accepted the offer, but he piloted the boat up the middle of the river so that it had to fight the current instead of seeking the stiller water nearer the shore. Much slower boats sped past the steamboat Stephen was piloting. When the captain remonstrated with Stephen, he replied, “I know as much as any man can afford to know for $125.” On hearing this, the captain raised Stephen’s salary to $250, and Stephen began to make that steamboat fly upstream.

• When he was a young man, Edward Stratemeyer, who later created the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, wanted to be a writer — a career his father advised him not to pursue. Edward worked at his brother’s stationery store while continuing to write in his spare time. He wrote a long story titled “Victor Horton’s Idea,” which he sold for $75, a lot of money in the late 19th century. In fact, $75 was six times what he made per week at the stationery store. When he told his father what he had done and how much money he had been paid, his father said, “Paid you that for writing a story? Well, you’d better write a lot more of them!”

• Wilson Mizner, a playwright and screenwriter, used to travel on ocean liners, where he made a living inveigling rich passengers into playing poker with him. In fact, quite a few cardsharps made quite a lot of money that way. Once, Mr. Mizner invited a man to play poker with him, but the man kept on winning no matter what Mr. Mizner did. In the final hand of the game, Mr. Mizner manipulated the cards so that he had four queens, but the other man had four kings. Realizing that he had met a superior cardsharp, Mr. Mizner said, “You win, but those are not the cards I dealt you.”

• Perk’s Coffee House, which used to be located in Athens, Ohio, home of Ohio University, had many witty and intelligent employees who were very good at writing humor to encourage customers to toss spare change into the tip jar. For example, an April 2008 display by the tip jar consisted of a plastic figurine of Godzilla holding this sign: “Tip, and I shall spare your villages and dormitories.”

• Moritz Saphir received an allowance from the Austrian Baron Rothschild, which allowed him to devote his time to writing. One day, he arrived to pick up the money, and Baron Rothschild said, “Ah, Saphir, I see you’ve come for your money.” Mr. Saphir replied, “For my money? No, Baron, you mean for your money.”

• Samuel Hoffenstein wrote much poetry, but he gave it up when he started writing screenplays. A movie producer asked him, “How could you give up writing for this trash?” Mr. Hoffenstein replied, “Have you ever received a royalty check on a book of poetry?”

Mothers

• In 1960, children’s book author Jane Yolen moved to New York, where she lived with two other women in Greenwich Village. She met her future husband, David Stemple, when he climbed in through a window to attend their housewarming party — his way of introducing himself to Jane was to kiss her neck. When they moved in together, Jane did not tell her mother. However, her mother may have known anyway. Whenever her mother wanted to visit Jane, she would call ahead of time, giving her plenty of time to de-David the apartment and get rid of any easy-to-see evidence of their cohabitation.

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Mishaps, Money

Mishaps

• As you would expect, children’s author/illustrator Shel Silverstein, creator of The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, had some interesting experiences. While Mr. Silverstein worked for The Torch, the monthly school newspaper of Roosevelt University in Chicago, his boss once paid him not with money, but with a typewriter. And while he served in the Army during the Korean Way, he once got in trouble with his superior officers because the socks he was wearing with his uniform weren’t regulation issue — they were argyle.

• An amusing error appears in Alexander Theroux’s short biography of Edward Gorey, printed by Fantagraphics. At the bottom of p. 14, Mr. Theroux writes that Mr. Gorey “never sent thank-you notes.” However, at the top of the page appears a reproduction of a short note that Mr. Gorey sent to Mr. Theroux. The note says in part, “Thank you so much for the neat skull.”

• Many journalists keep copies of embarrassing typos and bloopers in headlines and stories. For example, a society editor wrote a story following the wedding of two socially prominent people in her town. The groom’s name was “Cockburns,” and this headline appeared above her story: “Cockburns off on Wedding Trip.”

• John Steinbeck once lost an important manuscript: that of the stories that made up his book The Red Pony. No problem. He sat down and rewrote the book. When he later discovered the original manuscript, he compared it with his rewrite and discovered that except for seven words, the manuscripts were exactly the same.

• Mishaps occur even in the lives of famous authors. Poet Arnold Adoff, author of Eats and Chocolate Dreams, was once eating peanut butter while writing at a typewriter. He was careless, he got peanut butter in the typewriter, and he was forced to hire a repairman to fix the problem.

Money

• When Robert Fisk, investigative journalist for The Independent in Britain, discovered that a biography titled Saddam Hussein: From Birth to Martyrdom was selling well in Egypt, he decided to investigate. Why? Because displayed on the biography’s book cover and title page were the words “by Robert Fisk,” although he had not written the book. He used his Sherlock Holmesian skills to track the forger to a bookstore where the forger had worked, although apparently the forger no longer worked there. Mr. Fisk bought a copy of the biography for 30 Egyptian pounds, then he produced his ID and told the bookstore proprietor that he was Robert Fisk and that he had not written the book. He then asked how many copies of the book the bookstore proprietor — who called himself “Mahmoud” — had sold. Mahmoud replied, “At least 100 so far.” Mr. Fisk then said, “So you owe me 3,000 Egyptian pounds!” Unfortunately, this reply came back: “But, no, Mr. Robert, we don’t owe you this — because you have just told me you didn’t write this book. How can we pay you for a book you did not write?”

• Jane Rule is the author of Desert of the Heart, her pro-lesbian novel an English publishing house released in 1964. In publishing the novel, Ms. Rule did not use a pseudonym — a rarity at the time. In 2005, she was living on Galliano Island, a British Columbia Gulf Island where she ran a small mortgage and loan company in a community where most residents were accustomed to a cash-only economy. She said that she spent her time “often bailing out kids who’re in trouble and finding mortgages for people whom the banks wouldn’t touch. I think a good many of them are growing pot.” Of course, growing pot can be problematic if a pot grower who owes you money gets arrested. Therefore, she jokes, “I said to the cop, ‘Don’t you bust anybody until you check to see whether I have their mortgage or not!’” This job did have an advantage for a writer: “You learn a lot about people when they need money.”

***

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Media, Mishaps

Media

• In 1953, 16-year-old high school student Shirlie Blaney got what many, many journalists wanted: an exclusive interview with the reclusive J.D. Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye. Getting the interview wasn’t that hard. Mr. Salinger was friendly with the students in Windsor, Vermont, and Shirlie simply asked for the interview. However, the editor of the Windsor Eagle, knowing that the high school student had gotten a major coup, decided not to run the interview on the high school page, but instead ran it prominently on the op-ed page. Mr. Salinger’s friendship with the high school students ended.

• An editor for the Washington Post called lesbian humorist Ellen Orleans, who lives in Colorado, to get permission to reprint one of her essays. Ms. Orleans waited until she hung up the telephone to go berserk and scream out the window: “That was the Washington Post. That’s the W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N — not DenverPost. They like my writing. They’re even paying me real money for it!”

• When H. Allen Smith was a young newspaper reporter, he worked at the United Press, which had offices in the Daily News building in New York. He and a friend, Henry McLemore, decided to make things interesting for bystanders by taking turns running through the lobby and screaming at the top of their lungs, “Gangway! Scoop! Scoop! Scoop!”

Mishaps

• Monica Dickens is the great-granddaughter of novelist Charles Dickens. (He died in 1870; she was born in 1915.) Because she was bored with the rounds of debutante balls, she decided to go into service — that is, she hired herself out as a cook/maid to people of her own social class. Her 18 months working as a servant resulted in one of her delightful autobiographies, One Pair of Hands, which was published in 1939 and which includes many anecdotes. On one occasion when Monica Dickens was serving drinks at an employer’s party, she heard one gentleman ask another, “What station does one go from for Portsmouth?” Of course, as a servant, Ms. Dickens was supposed to be seen and not heard, but without thinking, she “answered automatically, ‘Waterloo.’ I was horrified, and they were a little startled, but being perfect gentlemen they smiled politely and said ‘Thank you.’”

• As you would expect, Carson McCullers read deeply. When she was a child, she was sent to buy groceries at a time she was engrossed in reading short stories by Katherine Mansfield. She read the stories at the grocery store counter, and she read the stories under the street lamp outside the grocery store. Once she was so engrossed in a work by Dostoevsky that she didn’t notice that her house was on fire. And when she was working a day job as a bookkeeper, she was fired because she read Proust on company time. Carson also formed crushes on other people, including writers. At Yaddo, a writers’ colony, she used to curl up outside the door of Katherine Anne Porter’s cabin, hoping to make Ms. Porter pay attention to her when she finally opened the door. Instead, Ms. Porter pretended that Carson wasn’t there and stepped over her and went wherever she needed to go.

• Some famous writers have notoriously bad handwriting — a major problem for editors attempting to provide scholarly editions of the writers’ letters, journals, and notebooks. Unintentional errors, of course, occur in this attempt. Walter Harding, the founding editor of the Thoreau Edition, believed that Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, had used the word “Ecology” in an 1850s letter. If so, this would have been the word’s first-ever recorded use, with its second-ever recorded use occurring eight years later. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary changed its entry on “ecology” to include Mr. Thoreau’s alleged use of the word. Unfortunately, when Mr. Harding reexamined the letter and related documents, he discovered that what he had thought was a capital E was actually a capital G. Mr. Thoreau had not written “Ecology” — he had written “Geology.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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David Bruce: The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Letters, Media

Letters

• Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., author of Slaughterhouse-Five, received a letter from an Indiana high-school student who boiled down the message of Mr. Vonnegut’s books to this maxim: “Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail.” Mr. Vonnegut was pleased with the maxim and wrote in the preface of his novel Jailbird, “I am now in the abashed condition … of realizing that I needn’t have bothered to write several books. A seven-word telegram would have done the job. Seriously.”

• Perhaps the most shocking letter that Judy Blume, an often-censored and often-challenged author of books for young people, ever received came from a nine-year-old who criticized her for writing about Jewish angels in Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself. The letter was addressed to Jewdy Blume.

• The first fan letter that J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, received came from Francesca Gray. The letter began, “Dear Sir ….” Since then, Francesca and Ms. Rowling have met, and Francesca has realized her mistake.

Libraries

• 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.

• Malcolm Glenn Wyer was a librarian who was interested in expanding his library’s holdings in the field of aeronautics. Therefore, in 1940, he asked Maggs Brothers, a London book-dealing firm, to ship a collection of aeronautical books to the Denver [Colorado] Public Library, where they could be inspected, and if found suitable, purchased. Maggs Brothers agreed and sent the requested books. Later, Mr. Wyer received a letter from Maggs Brothers, saying that the day after the books had been sent, the warehouse where they had been stored was destroyed by Nazi bombs.

• As a child, Newbery Medal-winning children’s book author Lois Lowry often visited the library twice in one day, returning the books she had checked out, then read earlier that day. When the librarian told her that she shouldn’t borrow, then return books the same day, young Lois started taking out thicker books.

Media

• In the late 1980s, two Village Voice writers had a disagreement. Nat Hentoff had written something about abortion that upset Allen Barra, and Mr. Barra criticized Mr. Hentoff in a letter to the editor that used the word “fascist” frequently. Mr. Barra was so angry at Mr. Hentoff that he didn’t even ask the jazz enthusiast if he had heard any good jazz albums recently. Not long after, Mr. Barra received a reply from Mr. Hentoff in his Village Voice mail slot. Mr. Hentoff had placed there a very good jazz album by Pee Wee Russell. In addition, he left a note: “Hey, give me a break. You may need it yourself someday. P.S. Listen to this. It might clear your head out.” Mr. Barra, with tongue in cheek (and in check), wrote a couple of decades later about Mr. Hentoff, only without the use of the asterisk, “What an *sshole. Instead of jumping into the argument with pettiness and personal acrimony, he sought to create a dialogue with reason, tolerance, and jazz. What can you do with a guy like that?” Mr. Hentoff, of course, is not afraid to express his opinions, even when many or most people disagree with them. And he does not feel obligated to toe a knee-jerk liberal line. In fact, he once told a Village Voice editor, “When I want your opinion, I’ll ask Tom Hayden for it.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Buy

The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Kindle

The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Apple

The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Barnes and Noble

The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3 — Kobo

The Funniest People in Books, Volume 3— Smashwords: Many Formats, Including PDF