Fun Facts: Books and Literature
"All that non-fiction can do is answer questions. It's fiction's business to ask them."
The great architect of ancient Egypt, Imhotep (2,655–2,600 B.C.)
is the earliest scientist who is known by name today.
We also know the names of other ancient Egyptian architects, scientists, and
mathematicians, such as the scribe Ahmes. On the other hand,
China, Sumeria, and Babylon did not record the names of their early
Euclid is the most successful textbook writer of all time. His
Elements, written around 300 B.C., has gone through more
than 1,000 editions since the invention of printing.
Several of Aristotle's writings have survived only by a fortunate chance.
Around 80 B.C., the men of a Roman army invading Asia Minor found a
number of manuscripts of Aristotle's works in a pit and brought them
to their general, Sulla. It turned out that no other copies of many of
them existed, and Sulla had them taken to Rome and recopied.
Vergil, who is generally accepted as the greatest of the Roman poets, left
instructions that, upon his death, his manuscript of the
Aeneid should be burned because
he had not been able to polish it. Roman emperor Augustus—who may
have been the one who requested Vergil to write it—stepped
in and countermanded Vergil's request. He had others polish the work,
and ordered it published.
The first volume of recipes was published in 62 A.D. by the Roman
Apicius. Titled De Re Coquinaria, it described the feasts
enjoyed by the Emperor Claudius.
As most early literate civilisations were located around
the warm Mediterranean region,
the first mention of an iceberg in world literature did not appear until
the ninth century A.D., when an account of the travels of the Irish
monk St. Brendan in the North Atlantic, three centuries before, appeared.
It mentioned that he saw a "floating crystal castle."
Paper was invented in China around 105 A.D., by the eunuch Ts'ai Lun.
According to the official history of the Han dynasty (3rd
century A.D.), Ts'ai Lun was given an aristocratic title after he
presented Emperor Ho Ti with samples of paper. In 751 A.D., Chinese
papermakers were captured by the Arabs at Samarkand, and by 794 A.D.
several state-owned paper mills operated in Baghdad. The Arabs were
manufacturing paper in Spain around 1150. It was not until 1590 that
the first English paper mill was founded, at Dartford.
The story of Cinderella first appears in a Chinese book written in the 850s.
The first novel ever written is believed to be The Tale of
Genji, written in the first decade of the 11th
century by Murasaki Shibuku, a Japanese noblewoman. It contains 54
An instrumental factor in keeping Persian the language of modern Iran
(instead of being replaced by Arabic) was the Shah-nama or
Book of Shahs, which was written in Persian.
Finished in 1010 by Abul Qasim
Mansuar, who wrote under the pen name Firdausi, it was a poem of 60,000
verses (seven times the length of Homer's Iliad), detailing
the history of the Persian kings from legendary beginnings down to
Khosru II in the seventh century. It has remained the great national
poem of the nation and its preeminent literary work.
In the early 11th century, Persian Sultan Mahmud promised
the poet Firdausi one gold dinar (about $4.70) for each couplet of his
poem Shah-nama or Book of Shahs
(a poem containing the history of the Kings of Persia) upon completion.
When Firdausi delivered the poem in 1010, it was 60,000 lines long.
Mahmud's advisors claimed the requisite fee would be exorbitant, and paid
Firdausi in silver instead. Firdausi, outraged, left the court.
In 1020, Mahmud was struck by the beauty of a couplet that he learned
was written by Firdausi. He repented his miserliness and sent a camel
caravan with 60,000 gold dinars' worth of indigo to Firdausi with a
letter of apology. Unfortunately, it arrived in the village of Tus
as Firdausi's funeral procession was passing through the streets.
The sole surviving written record of Mayan history is three codices
written in hieroglyphs on bark paper. All three are now
held in European cities.
Had Marco Polo not been captured by the Genoese and imprisoned,
the tales of his twenty-two-year adventure in the
Far and Middle East at the end of the thirteenth century may never
have been made known. When he returned to Venice
after his odyssey, he became a "gentleman commander" of a war vessel
striving to hold off Genoese traders. In a battle of Curzold Island,
his galley was captured and Marco was hauled off to Genoa and gaoled.
There he met a writer named Rustichello, who, after hearing Marco's
yarns, insisted that they be written down.
Copernicus' revolutionary book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, which argued that heavenly bodies move around
the sun, ignited a scientific revolution, but was a financial failure.
Published in 1543, it was overpriced and went out of
print. A second edition was not printed until 1566, and a third edition
was not printed until 1617.
William Shakespeare's average annual income as a playwright was
under £20, which works out to about £8 per play. However,
he made about twice as much from writing plays as Ben Jonson, the only
contemporary playwright who was better known at the time than Shakespeare.
Shakespeare used around 29,000 different words in his plays.
About 6,000 words only appear once.
About 10,000 words are not found
in any surviving English
literature prior to Shakespeare.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a short story in 1838, "The Narrative of Arthur
Gordon Pym of Nantucket", in which three shipwreck survivors in an
open boat kill and eat the fourth, a man named Richard Parker. In 1884,
in the real world, three shipwreck survivors in an open boat killed and
ate the fourth, whose name was Richard Parker.
A well-intentioned philanthropist, Eugene Scheifflin, instituted a
project in the 1890s to bring to America each type of bird mentioned
in the works of Shakespeare. As Hotspur talks about the starling in
Henry IV, Part I, starlings were let loose in New York's
Central Park. There are now millions of starlings throughout all of
Thomas Watson was one of the most popular and important playwrights
in the Elizabethan age, but none of his dramas exists today.
It is estimated that over 7,500,000,000 copies of the Bible have been made.
The quark, a building block of the proton, got its name from
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, from the line
"Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn't got much of a bark".
The moons of all other planets in the solar system are named after Greek
gods, except for those of Uranus, which are named after Shakespearean
Agatha Christie is the top-selling English-language author of all time.
She wrote 78 mystery novels that have sold an estimated 2,000,000,000 copies.
The Guinness Book of World Records, first published
in 1955, got into itself nineteen years later, in 1974, by setting
a record as the fastest-selling book in the world.
Winnie-the-Pooh is based on a real bear. On August 24th, 1914,
a Canadian soldier and veterinarian named Harry Colebourn, en route
to a training camp in Valcartier, Quebec, purchased an orphaned black
bear cub for $20 in White River, Ontario, which he named Winnipeg,
or Winnie for short. When his unit was sent over to France during World
War I, Colebourn loaned her to the London Zoo, intending to take her back
to Canada after the war. However, Winnie's gentle disposition made her
the zoo's top attraction, and on December 1, 1919, he donated her to the zoo.
In the mid 1920's, writer A. A. Milne often took his young son,
Christopher Robin, to the zoo, and Christopher named his teddy bear
"Winnie-the-Pooh" after Winnie. A. A. Milne went on to write several
best-selling children's books about Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh.
On August 8, 1969, novelist Jerzy Kosinski
was flying to Los Angeles from Paris, with a short stopover in New
York. At New York, all his luggage was accidentally unloaded, forcing him
to get off the plane to go through customs, missing his connecting flight.
This in turn caused him to miss his visit that night with actress Sharon
Tate and other friends, and thus he was absent when Charles Manson
and his disciples paid their murderous visit to the Tate house.
Kosinski later wrote about this close call in the novel Blind
In 1977, as an experiment, Chuck Ross typed up a fresh manuscript
copy of Jerzy Kosinski's novel Steps, which had won the National Book
Award in 1969 for best work of fiction, changed the title, and
submitted the work under his by-line to 14 publishers. All of them
rejected the novel, including Random House, the book's original publisher.
Shakespeare's most talkative character is Hamlet, who has 1,422 lines in Hamlet. None of his other
characters have as many lines in a single play. (Falstaff, who appears
in several plays, has more lines total).
The largest book in the world, a copy of the Tripitaka,
the sacred Buddhist text that includes Buddha's teachings, is inscribed
on 729 marble slabs, each 3.5' × 5' × 5", and occupies a
thirteen-acre site on the grounds of the Kuthodaw pagoda in Mandalay, Burma.
By the fifteenth century, manuscript copyists had set up mass-production
workshops capable of turning out sizable quantities of books. An order
in the year 1437 (found at Leyde, the Netherlands)
called for 200 copies of the Psalms of Penitence, 200 of
Cato's Distichs in Flemish, and 400 of a small prayer book.
Emily Dickinson wrote over 1,800 poems. Only seven
were published in her lifetime, all without her consent.
Shakespeare makes Lear, an early Anglo-Saxon King, speak of not wanting
spectacles. In relating Macbeth's death, in 1054, and King John's reign in
1200, he mentions cannons. In Julius Caesar, he makes the
clock strike three. However, these three inventions were not invented
until the fourteenth century.
In the United Kingdom in the 1980s, a television ad ran for the Yellow Pages. The ad depicted a man looking for the book Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley. At the end of the ad, the man speaks into the phone, "My name? J. R. Hartley," which became a popular catchphrase in Great Britain. In the 1990s, a man wrote a book entitled Fly Fishing, and used the pseudonym J. R. Hartley to cash in on the ad's popularity. The book, though out-of-print, is still quite popular, but mostly due to the commercial, not the book's content.