Category Archives: trivia


You Are What You Read

I’m something of a science nerd, so I love it when science and literacy come together. Fortunately for me, I get just that in this Jezebel article about readers emulating their favorite characters. The study reveals that readers can shift their thoughts and actions to match their favorite literary character and attempt to live vicariously through a character by taking on what we think would be his or her thoughts, actions and emotions.

I know that there have been plenty of times when I have stopped to think, “What would so-and-so do in this situation?” and this article really made me think back and reflect on my habits and reading. I love to re-read Gone with the Wind, and I feel protective of Scarlett as I imagine what life might have been like for her. Now I wonder if I’m more flirtatious or take on more of a ruthless attitude towards the world as I read and think about Miss O’Hara.

What do you think? Have you ever lived vicariously through a book character? Do you think you emulate your favorite characters?


The murderous beats

This past Sunday afternoon, several parents from my son’s preschool organized an Easter Egg Hunt for the kids in Riverside Park near Columbia University. With the park in full bloom and the children remarkably well behaved for so late in the day, we must have presented just about as wholesome and innocent a portrait as you can get here in the Big City.

Yet who would have guessed our kiddies were scrounging for eggs on the site of a legendary literary murder?

Not me, until I read this piece in the Times about the Beat writers and how Lucian Carr, mentor to Ginsberg and Kerouac at Columbia, murdered the childhood stalker who had followed Carr to New York from St. Louis. Afterwards, Carr dumped the body in the Hudson—and must have dragged it right through the spot where we were picnicking 68 years later!

Well, morbid connections aside, I love this story for a few reasons. One, I’ve been a big fan of the Beats since high school when my lit-mag friends and I would traipse down to Café Reggio on MacDougal Street and pretend we were hipsters over cappucinos—though, full disclosure, I didn’t actually read any of their work until post-college. But when I did, I was hooked, and even now I’ve probably re-read HOWL and ON THE ROAD more than any other books on my shelf.

Two, it’s always fun to hear a new story about literary heroes, especially a nicely lurid one like this. But I especially love how it places the rowdy, anti-establishment Beats firmly in the Columbia literary culture—somehow, it makes them more relatable without deflating their impact, sort of like Thoreau heading home from Walden for dinner.

And three, it reaffirms my book-love for NYC. I mean, you could walk down virtually any street in any borough and there’s some kind of literary connection—a scene from a favorite book, the residence of a famous writer, the site (or former site) of a bookstore or writers’ bar or some other hangout. And in a few instances, like Riverside Park, something much more sinister…


Deathbed wit

Most writers I know are fairly self-conscious by nature and most have a lot invested in being “writerly.”  Writing as a profession seems to define its practitioners in a way that baking or delivering mail, say, doesn’t.  Don’t you find that as soon as you tell people you’re a writer, they seem to hang on your words with an extra bit of anticipation?  Aren’t you mortified when you struggle to come up with the right phrase while in conversation or type the wrong word in a blog?  As a writer, you should have all the contents of Webster’s readily at your fingertips if not your tongue, right?  Everyone expects you to be able to solve the Times crossword puzzle (on Friday) but also have the mot juste for every occasion.  (This, by the way, applies to those of us who merely work with books as well, not just those who write them.)

So, how mortifying if one’s final words as a writer were pedestrian—“I’m dying,” “Get me a glass of water,” “Ugh.”  Just think how put out the people hanging around your bedside as you are preparing to breathe your last would be if you didn’t come up with a concluding statement for the ages.

Or maybe it’s just me.  This HuffPost offering has me thinking about what I would like my last words to be.  It’s important to be concise (you probably won’t have much time), clever but somewhat profound—unless satire is your métier—and sincere.  So, I think I’m going to start working on the perfect goodbye phrase.  Hopefully, I won’t need to use it  for a very, very long time, but it’s good to be prepared.  After all, you only have one chance to get it right.

What would your last words be?  Would you be sweet like Virginia Woolf, poetic like Emily Dickinson, pissy like Eugene O’Neill, or droll like Oscar Wilde?  Give me some suggestions.  If nothing else, a good parting phrase will come in useful in your fiction.


Did you know?

I love trivia. Like really, really love trivia. The single worst thing about not owning a television is that I can no longer watch Jeopardy! every night at 7:00. Any other show I’d care to watch, I can find online, but there’s no magic in watching a rerun of Jeopardy! The best kind of anecdotal knowledge is the kind you pick up by accident. Of course, knowing facts and information because you’ve studied it or gone out of your way to research is valuable and fulfilling stuff, but it’s the answer you blurt out that you didn’t even realize you knew that means the most. The “I have no idea how I even knew that” qualification after correctly answering an obscure question really gives weight to your knowledge.

While you must, of course, be careful trusting history or information given in a novel as fact, as a  novel is, by definition, fiction, I’ve learned many useful (and many more useless) things simply by enjoying a book. Whether it be rudimentary philosophy, practices unique to various cultures or eras, definitions or obscure words or scientific classifications, every writer of every book has a knowledge and understanding unique to themselves—as do, of course, the readers! In so writing purely what one knows (as goes the age-old advice), there must be some assumption that every bit of background or situational intelligence is common knowledge. Otherwise, books would have to be at least twice as long purely on account of necessary explanation of every little thing.

Sometimes it’s just that a book was written in a past decade or century, and society as portrayed in, say, Pride and Prejudice may not have been a groundbreaking description when Austen first published, but is insightful to modern readers. Even just a sense of a different human experience can spark an interest that was previously dormant and leads to further reading and research. Luckily, my passion for trivia is trumped only by my passion for books, so the two feed well off of each other. What sort of things have you been lead to learn more about because of a novel? Are there any novels in particular that you feel have taught you something—whether or importance or simple fun fact?


Boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

I read today that, over the weekend, the house that some believe to be the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was torn down. The property, located on Long Island’s Gold Coast, will be subdivided and replaced by five houses, each with a ten million dollar price tag. The 25-room mansion, sitting on thirteen acres of land, belonged to a Gilded Age of the roaring twenties, a period of artistic and cultural vivacity, and was the site of countless parties, many as described in Fitzgerald’s fantastic novel.

I’m a sucker for period architecture, so it’s sad to see a beautiful house with a storied history get reduced to rubble. But at the very least, it’s nice to see it live on in the pages of a novel that certainly claims a firm spot within American literature.


The best of all possible houses

by Jessica

Last week demonstrated that few people note, or especially care, about the publisher behind a given book, which means that it is a distinct minority that pays attention to the colophon, the little logo printed on a book’s spine. Knopf has a sleek borzoi, Harper a torch, and Random House a rather distinctive house. For anyone who has ever puzzled over where those symbols originate (or fans of generally useless trivia) here is the provenance of the little house on the big books.