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At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 6
Wednesday February 2, 2000

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. Dictionaries Then and Now
2. It Would Have Been Better Titled 1986
3. Important Books that Writers Don't Read
4. Do You Know Me?
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Blue Underlined Words

1. Dictionaries Then and Now
It's hard to imagine life without a good dictionary, but it wasn't so long ago that people had to struggle along without them. The first dictionary in English did not appear until 1604. It was compiled by Robert Cawdrey, and it bore the ungainly title "Table Alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French &c." It listed 3,000 words, and the Encyclopedia Britannica says it borrowed heavily from previous sources (one wonders what previous sources there were, if it was the first).

The great milestone of dictionary-making in English was Samuel Johnson's, which came out in 1747. It comprised 43,500 words, but it established a new authoritative method in that it provided 118,000 illustrative quotations. About a hundred years later, America made a major contribution to dictionary theory when Noah Webster compiled one specifically to recognize changes and variations in the language that had their origin on this continent. But Noah Webster is not the most interesting American to influence dictionary history. That American can be found in the story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary represents the apotheosis of English dictionary-dom. English doesn't have a committee to certify its usages the way French does, but the OED is as much as any language needs. Begun in 1879 and finished in 1928, the first edition ran to 15,000 pages and comprised 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Much of the work of compiling this dictionary was performed by volunteers, who ferreted out the quotations from published works. The most prolific of these volunteer contributors was Dr. W. C. Minor, an American Army surgeon, who was also a lunatic and supplied his contributions from Broadmoor, the English asylum where he was confined for the murder of a brewery employee on a street in London.

The entire story is told in The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (subtitled "A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary") and published in 1998 by HarperCollins. It is an engrossing story, and if you want to get the flavor of it, there's an excerpt at a site called Bookbrowse: madman.html. It is the story of James Murray, the second and most distinguished editor of the OED, and the insane Dr. Minor. Here is the flap copy: "The two men, for two decades, maintained a close relationship only through correspondence. Finally, in 1896, after Minor had sent nearly ten thousand definitions to the dictionary but had still never traveled from his home, a puzzled Murray set out to visit him. It was then that Murray finally learned the truth about Minor -- that, in addition to being a masterful wordsmith, Minor was also a murderer, clinically insane -- and locked up in Broadmoor, England's harshest asylum for criminal lunatics." The flap copy is not true, by the way. Murray learned of Minor's insanity much earlier in their relationship and knew about it before he ever visited him. I guess the flap copy writer didn't have time to read the whole book. If you want to read a transcript of Simon Winchester's C-Span "Booknotes" interview:

The latest development for the OED, however, is that it is now resident on the web. Go to, where you can find a really cool tour of it. But then they've got to provide a really cool tour if they are going to sell subscriptions at $550 apiece, which is what they are doing. But if you have to have the dictionary, and you can't afford it, don't despair. One of the features of the website is the "Word of the Day," which provides an entire entry for a single word (these are big entries, too). If you checked back every day, you could recompile the dictionary for your own use in just 1,136 years.

If the OED isn't free, however, there are some dictionaries on the web that are. Here's a site to get you started. It features links for 75 categories of specialized dictionaries:

2. It Would Have Been Better Titled 1986
Please forgive me for spouting off about this, but if I had written George Orwell's most famous book, I would have set it in 1986. I've been going through the decade and looking at the suitability of each of its years as a novel setting. I reject 1980 immediately. It seems entirely too much like a demarcation; and the same goes for 1985. Then 1983 is definitely out because three is a major (and therefore common) number in our lives. I suspect most people, when asked to pick a number, pick three. So 1983 seems too obvious. I wouldn't use 1987, because there are so many superstitions associated with seven, and the successive eights of 1988 seem cute. That leaves 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, and 1989. Neither 1981 or 1982 is far enough into the decade to signify the midst of an era. And 1989 is nearly 1990, isn't it? That leaves 1984 and 1986. I don't know; 1986 just has a better ring to it.

I've been thinking about this because Orwell's reasoning in choosing his setting (and title) has lately been the object of speculation.

When Orwell started the novel, he set it in 1980. In the course of writing and rewriting, he changed the date of its setting first to 1982, then to 1984. He stuck with 1984, and he titled the book The Last Man in Europe. But when the book was published in America, he changed the title, at the request of his American publisher, to 1984.

Orwell's choice of the year 1984 is the stuff of which academic careers are made. One theory has it that 1984 is an allusion to chapter 21 of Jack London's The Iron Heel, which has references to that year. Another researcher argued in the pages of The Journal of Peasant Studies that Orwell appropriated it from a story by a Russian writer. Peter Davison, who edited the complete works of Orwell (20 volumes), says that Orwell was 36 when World War II broke out, and he chose as the date for the outbreak of World War III the year his son would be 36.

The newest theory emerges from the pages of The Times Literary Supplement, which has unearthed an obscure poem that could be the basis for an allusion. Orwell's first wife, Eileen O'Shaugnessy (who died in 1944) wrote a poem in 1934 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Sunderland Church High School, which she had attended. The poem was called "End of the Century 1984," and it describes a world 50 years in the future, using the phrase "mental cremation." It also has a line that could be construed as depicting telepathic thought control. So it seems to suggest a world similar to the one created by Orwell for his novel.

There is a consensus among the academics that O'Shaugnessy had a great influence over Orwell's work. Michael Shelden, an Orwell biographer, believes the author may have been offering a subtle tribute to his first wife in the title of his novel. It is certainly a romantic notion and probably is as good as that held by Bernard Crick, another Orwell biographer. Crick points out that the author finished the manuscript in 1948, and simply switching the last two digits gives you 1984. (But of course if he'd then added two, he would have had 1986.)

I got the information for this item from an article in a publication called The Age. But when I did my predistribution verification, the article had been taken down. I could not find an archive, so I have no link for you. Sorry.

3. Important Books that Writers Don't Read
In a novel I once wrote, the protagonist hopes to gain some understanding of why his wife left him by systematically reading everything she has checked out the library. I wanted to make this task seem herculean, so I decided to open the book with my character struggling through the pages of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. I had never read Proust, but I knew he was the object of some Monty Python jokes, so I thought his book was a good candidate. Since I would be referring to it, I thought I ought to read it, and I went to the library and found it was one honking big book -- more than one volume, even. I read about enough to satisfy the needs of my story (which wasn't much) and then got on with my novel and my life. I have harbored a small burden of guilt ever since.

That is why I was so happy to read a page at Booksonline (a publication of The Telegraph, U.K.) for which a man interviewed contemporary British writers on books they hadn't read. David Smyth asked John Lancaster, Alain de Botton, Amanda Foreman, Julian Barnes, Ian Rankin, Fay Weldon, Malcolm Bradbury, Andrew O'Hagan, Polly Samson, and William Boyd about the books they dread and the ones they are proud to have waded through.

"The works of Proust, Joyce, and Tolstoy," says Smyth, "are the opposite of the airport page-turner -- once put down, they are hard to pick up again." No argument from me.

It's interesting that when questioned by Smyth, many of the authors mention owning the books they've never read. The never-read books cited include The Brothers Karamazov, War And Peace, Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The most priceless remark was this by Fay Weldon: "Whenever I read the first page of Jane Austen's Persuasion I am so depressed that I want to cry."

The URL for the article isn't quite as long as Proust's novel:

4. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to

Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence:
It was a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford at the beginning of October.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence:
The lovely Jessica sat alone at a small white table in front of a smaller white page, and although she looked so neat and demure there was murder in her heart.

Two readers sent me messages about this one, one just to say it was intriguing, the other to suggest the writer might be William F. Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, which seems an inspired guess but isn't correct.

The sentence is from Blackeyes by Dennis Potter.

Here's the novel's entire first paragraph: "The lovely Jessica sat alone at a small white table in front of a smaller white page, and although she looked so neat and demure there was murder in her heart. Her mind was puckering into the folds of a fierce concentration, but none of the tension which comes from hard and unfamiliar thinking had shown itself on the apparently calm oval of her face. The words would not come, as words will not when the task they are supposed to fulfil is beyond the reach of reason. She had learnt already that it was as difficult as it was tedious to try to describe the disturbing events in her own broken-into dreams, let alone the almost incomprehensible darkness in someone else's. But before the ink could flow, she needed to slither and splash into the rotting swamp behind the bony walls of the old man's head."

The novel was originally published in 1987. Here is the flap copy: "Beautiful Jessica is a fashion model, and the niece of seventy- seven-year-old writer Maurice James Kingsley. Unpublished for twenty years, dear uncle produces a surprise bestseller, a picture of London's fashion demimonde starring a beautiful girl named Blackeyes. Who is using whom for his or her own artistic purposes? When Blackeyes' body is found drowned in Kensington Gardens, is the killing fact or fiction?"

Dennis Potter was born in 1935 in Gloucestershire, England and died -- of pancreatic cancer -- in 1994. He was a graduate of Oxford, where he took honors.

As a novelist, Potter is obscure. Yet some of us consider him one of the most important writers of the second half of the century. His greatest fame was as a television writer. He wrote a number of films that were broadcast by the BBC in a style we have come to know in this country as the "mini-series," the best known of which are Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. When Potter's films make their way to the U.S., they usually turn up on public television. This is perhaps not surprising, since they are far more demanding than anything Americans are used to from their television sets. For the entertainment they offer (which is substantial), Potter's teleplays require concentration, emotional honesty, skepticism, and perhaps a little education.

Potter's stories, both films and novels, have three memorable characteristics. The first is a playful presentation. The dialogue is witty and amusing, the characters are often nutty, and Potter pioneered the technique of having actors lip-synch upbeat songs from bygone eras. The effect of a group of characters slipping from serious discussion into a production number of "The Head Bone's Connected to the Neck Bone" can be very strange -- and surprisingly powerful.

The second characteristic is flexibility in point of view and sequencing. Hide and Seek, for example, opens with the protagonist complaining that the author has been watching him. Blackeyes alternates between the point of view of the model Jessica and that of Blackeyes, the protagonist of Jessica's uncle's bestselling novel. You come to understand in the reading that Jessica's uncle has appropriated his niece's life for purposes of the novel, and she is determined to pay him back for the humiliation. Incessant frame-breaking and unreliable narration establish Potter as a writer of metafiction, such as Vladimir Nabokov or John Barth (neither of whom wrote quite as successfully for film as Potter did).

The third characteristic is an unremitting bleakness. Pennies from Heaven, for example, is about a sheet music salesman living on the edge of poverty who becomes a murder suspect. The Singing Detective is about a pulp fiction writer hospitalized with a raging case of psoriasis. As he attempts to compose his magnum opus in his head, he relives scenes from his childhood during the 1930s in an English coal mining town. Potter himself suffered from just such a case of psoriasis (it was the drugs he took for it that gave him pancreatic cancer in later life -- he never regretted taking them). The Singing Detective is widely recognized as autobiographical.

Other films written by Potter include Dreamchild (the story of Alice Hargreaves -- the model for Alice in Wonderland -- as an old woman), Brimstone and Treacle (the story of a con artist who moves in with a family who have a daughter in a persistent vegetative state), Lipstick on your Collar (sexual awakening and international tension during the Suez crisis of the 1950s, with lip-synching), Karaoke (a story about a dying writer who begins overhearing bits of his own dialog in real conversations), and Cold Lazarus (the story of the writer in Karaoke, after his death, when he lives on as a head kept alive by a laboratory in a futuristic society).

Potter's reputation as a television writer dwarfed his reputation as a novelist, but I personally think his novels are the best ones I read during the 1990s, although they are very short. But you may have noticed from my experience with Proust that I like short novels.

An aside: I have just noticed that every one of the "Do You Know Me?" authors so far have been English. I haven't planned it that way, but my rule is the author has to be out of print, and I think perhaps good English authors go out of print in the U.S. a little more readily than good American ones. As long as we're on the subject, though, did you know you can send me suggestions for this department? Who is your favorite out-of-print author? Let me know, and maybe we can quiz your fellow readers about him or her.

5. Messages to the Editor
Dear Floyd,
Much enjoyed yr new edition of the Margin. I've been rereading Joyce of late and scrawl this note to the esteemed editor of the Margin to say that Joyce's play was awful, his poetry worse, his last book unreadable muck, his novel Portrait a precious overblown pimply boys' book, his book of stories taut and perfect, and his novel about the Jewish ad salesman the greatest novel in our language. His wife read only the first 27 pages and then said, "Why don't you write books that people can read?" Joyce himself once said to his brother, rivetingly, "I am trying to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own, for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift."

In another conversation with his brother, Joyce asked "Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of the tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become. I don't mean for the police inspector. I mean for anybody who knew him. And his thoughts, for anybody who could know them. It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me."

Thought you'd grin -- best wishes, Brian Doyle

[Editor's Note: Brian is a long-time friend, and I am sure he is prepared to defend his remarks about Joyce. For the record, I did grin.]

6. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

Dear Deep Sheep
If you have wondered about the fate of the newspaper funnies page in the age of the World Wide Web, you gotta see this. It's a cartoon of a sheep. When you click on it, a question comes up, such as "Who wrote 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'?" Another click, and the sheep answers. The pages take a moment to load, but provide an animation to try to hold your interest for a moment while you wait.,5860,116310,00.html

What They Know About You
Website operators can gather a great deal of information about you when you visit their sites, or even when you load a page carrying an ad for a site you will never visit. Junkbusters lets you click on a link that then reports what information is revealed about you and your equipment from that click. You may be surprised.

Origin and Evolution of Fairy Tales
The general public knows fairy tales in the processed, fast-food form retailed by the Disney people. But, in fact, many of them were serious works of political or social comment. Fairy Tales: Origins and Evolutions describes "literary fairy tales of great imagination and invention, often quite cruel and gruesome, ... created by women surreptitiously rebelling against the constraints placed on them by their restrictive society. They were not written for children." Learn more at this informative, if opinionated, site. It has a bibliography and offers links to purchase the books from the web's 900-pound gorilla (which shall remain nameless here). But Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop can find you any book you want from as little as a title.

The Internet Classics Archive
Cicero, Plutarch, Pindar, Aristotle... There is a website where you can read any of 441 ancient works by 59 authors, mostly Greco-Roman, but some Chinese and Persian. They are in English translation, but you can read them in the original if you have the skill. There are reader commentaries, and many of the important words in the texts are linked to other sources of information. An incredible resource.

Fatbrain and eMatter
From the classics to electronic books... There is an online bookstore called, which sells technical books and other books people use on their jobs. Their publishing initiative, eMatter, sells online works and gives their creators royalties of 50 percent (substantially more than the industry standard of 10 percent). There is an interview with Judy Kirkpatrick, vice president and general manager of eMatter at

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