Category Archives: Literature

The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2017

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), established in 1982 by English Professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst opening sentence (also known as an “incipit”) for a novel. The name of the quasi-literary contest honors Edward George Bulwer Lytton, author of a very obscure 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford, with a very famous opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Each year, contest receives more than 10,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

The winner of the 2017 BLFC was Kat Russo of Loveland, Colorado:
The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.

The runner up was submitted by Tony Buccella of Allegany, New York:
Although in the rusty tackle-box of his mind he yearned to be a #3 buck-tail spinner, Bob knew deep down he must accept his cruel fate as a bottom bouncer rig, forever destined to scrape the muddy bottom of the river of life.

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Doug Self of Brunswick, Maine:
Detective Sam Steel stood at the crime scene staring puzzled at the chalk outline of Ms. Mulgrave’s body which was really just a stick figure with a dress, curly hair, boobs, and a smiley face because the police chalk guy had the day off.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California:
Pablo wrapped his arms around his dying hermano—the drone strike intended for cartel kingpin Miguel “El Jefe” Guzman had landed off-course, disintegrating Pablo’s casa—and as his fraternal soulmate’s life ebbed in his clutches, Pablo wailed heavenward, “He ain’t Jefe . . . he’s my brother!”

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For futher reading:
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)


Would a Million Monkeys on a Million Typewriters Produce the Works of Shakespeare?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIn 1928, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington presented a classical illustration of chance in his book, The Nature of the Physical World: “If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum. The chance of their doing so is decidedly more favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.” In the 1939 essay, “The Total Library,” Jorge Luis Borges relates a variant of this concept: “a half-dozen monkeys provide with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.” Over time, the quotation morphed into a more alliterative, memorable phrase invoking the Bard: “a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.” Huzzah! It is now known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. The probability, however, is very small: mathematicians have calculated to be one in 15 billion.

Such a theoretical discussion of probability begs the discussion of a real-world experiment. What would happen if you gave a half-dozen monkeys their own typewriters? Would they type anything of literary value? Glad you asked. In 2003, researchers at the University of Plymouth received a grant from the Arts Council to study that very question. The researchers placed specially modified computer keyboards in the enclosure of six monkeys, specifically Celebes crested macaques, at the Paignton Zoo (Devon, England) for a month. Vicky Melfi, a biologist at Paignton zoo, explained that the macaques (named Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan) were ideal animals to test the Infinite Monkey Theorem. “They are very intentional, deliberate and very dexterous, so they do want to interact with stuff you give them. They would sit on the computer and some of the younger ones would press the keys.” The researchers did not reward the monkeys for typing because they did not want them to become fixated on typing to the exclusion of other natural behavior. So what literary work did these budding writers produce?

The six monkeys produced only five pages of text between them. Alas, there was no iambic pentameter prose here; the pages were very monotonous, filled with the letter S. Near the end, they added some variation, adding the letters A, J, L, and M. There was nothing in the text that came close to being an English word. Perhaps they were writing the story of a hissing snake. Nevertheless, when they got bored of typing, they simply sat on the keyboards and defecated on them. This is, of course, nothing new — a mercurial author who is displeased with his manuscript and trashes it — in this case, literally shits on it! S’wounds!

We end this discussion of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, with computer scientist Robert Wilensky’ observation: “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Touché!

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Best Advice for Writers: Iain Banks

atkins-bookshelf-literatureWriting is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.

Iain Banks (1954-2013), Scottish science fiction author, best known for The Wasp Factory and the nine books that make up the Culture series. Bank was named one of the “50 Greatest British writer since 1945” by The Times in 2008.

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What Does Google Know About You?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIn his famous dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell introduced us to Big Brother, the leader of Oceania, who was power-hungry and had no interest in serving the common good. (Remind you of someone?) Back in the late 1940s, when Orwell wrote the novel, it was inconceivable that a government would subject its people to constant surveillance. In Oceania, surveillance was conducted via tele screens; they were often reminded that “Big Brother is watching you.” Of course, Orwell’s story is simply fiction; it could never happen…

Fast foward 70 years. Big Brother is here — and it’s right in your pocket or your hands. Google, while not a villainous autocrat, is watching you all the time — in ways that even Orwell’s Big Brother could not even fathom. Although most consider Google a search engine/apps company, it is actually a powerful, invasive ad agency with a voracious appetite for personal information — yours and every person on the planet who unwittingly surrenders their privacy to it — just so that it can make lots of money and sell you stuff. Consider that in 2015, Google earned $75 billion and 77% of it, $52 billion, came from advertising.

So how much does Google really know about you? Tom Gara, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, wanted to find out what Big Brother — I mean, Google — knows about him. What he discovered is enough to make you feel a bit violated. Gara writes: “Imagine there’s a list somewhere that contains every single webpage you have visited in the last five years. It also has everything you have ever searched for, every address you looked up on Google Maps, every email you sent, every chat message, every YouTube video you watched. Each entry is time-stamped, so its clear exactly, down to the minute, when all of this was done.” Google compiles an enormous amount of data about you and places it in three locations: My Dashboard, My Activity, and My Account. If someone were to hack into that information, they would learn all about you — perhaps more than your parents, your spouse, even your friends: who you know, what you read, what you watch, what you shop for, what you buy, what you write, and thus what you think. Welcome to the Orwellian modern world, the Age of Google.

This is what Google knew about reporter Gara:

64,019 searches he has done

134,966 emails

2,702 contacts

9,220 videos he has watched (and exactly when and what order)

117 apps he has downloaded

35 passwords he has stored in Google Chrome

Number of Android devices he owns (3)

3 credit card numbers

All the purchases he has made with those credit cards

855 documents he has created

Where he lives

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For further reading:


Obscure Poetic Terms

alex atkins bookshelf wordsEvery trade, every craft, every industry has a language of its own. Although the specialized language (known as jargon) of any particular craft may sound like gibberish to an outsider or a beginner, to a seasoned practitioner, those terms are like a second language; moreover, it is what binds the artist to his creative work. For the poet who labors with words and all their nuances, there are hundreds of beautiful but obscure poetic terms. Here is a sampling:

The insertion of one or more unstressed syllables at the beginning of a line where the poetical meter would normally require a stressed syllable. Here is an example from William Blake’s The Tiger:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

A term that describes the repetition of a word for emphasis; for example: “Never, never, never!”

A poem or song that celebrates a marriage.

Eye rhyme
Two words that look similar but sound different; for example: “come and home,” “daughter and laughter.”

Headless line
Note that the unit of measure in a line of verse is a foot; many poems use the same number and type of feet in each line. A headless line is when a line is one syllable short of the usual pattern and that syllable is missing from the beginning of the first foot of the line.

Words that are not arranged in their normal order, used for emphasis or style. Here is an example from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall…”

Gerard Manley Hopkins developed the idea of “sprung poetry,” which consists of metrical feet counted only by their stressed syllables (as opposed to counting feet by identifying both stressed and unstressed syllables. A rove-over is when a foot begins at the end of one line and ends on the next line.

A type of poetry that intermingles languages for humorous effect.

The rhetorical repetition of the same word or root word. Here is an example from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Maud A Monodrama:
Seal’d her mine from her first sweet breath.
Mine, mine by a right, from birth till death.
Mine, mine–our fathers have sworn.

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For further reading: The Poet’s Dictionary by William Packard

What Does the Moon Symbolize?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureToday, August 21, 2017, millions of Americans traveled near and far to witness a spectacular total solar eclipse that cast the moon’s shadow as a wide swath of darkness, the path of totality, (about 100 miles wide) that swiftly swept across the nation (about 10,000 miles long), traveling at a speed of 1,243 miles per hour — more than twice the speed of sound (for comparison, the fastest jet fighter travels 1,550 mph). While we wait for the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States in April 2024, it is worth pondering the rich symbolism of the moon as it appears in literature, cinema, and art. In the context of the humanities, what does the moon symbolize?

One of the most comprehensive reference books on symbolism is A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant originally published in French in 1969 and translated into English in 1994. At over 1,100 pages, it dwarfs the well-known seminal work, A Dictionary of Symbols by Spanish poet and mythologist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, published in 1958. The entry for moon in Chevalier and Gheerbrant’s book continues for seven pages. Here are some of the key concepts that the moon symbolizes:

bad luck
death and resurrection
female deity
good fortune

the passing of time
periodic change and renewal

For further reading: The Symbolism of Storms in Literature
Do Authors Plant Symbolism in Their Work?

For further reading: A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

Book Titles Based on Lines from the Bible

alex atkins bookshelf booksWhether you read it or not, believe in it or not, the Bible and its influence is ubiquitous — you find it in film, art, music, language, and literature. There are many books, for example, that focus on how the Bible has directly influenced language. Each day, without even knowing it, we use words and phrases that were introduced in the Bible: dust to dust, to break bread, salt of the earth, a two-edge sword, going the extra mile, a drop in the bucket, wolves in sheep’s clothing, the blind leading the blind… You get the picture. Not only has the Bible had an impact on language, it also has influenced literature — in themes and in titles. Indeed, the Bible has inspired the title of thousands of books. Here are some notable books with titles based on lines from the Bible (reference to Bible appears in parenthesis).

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (2 Samuel 13)

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy  (Genesis 18:1)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Genesis 4:16)

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard (Philippians 2:12)

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway (Genesis 13:10)

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Genesis 31:47)

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (Negro spiritual by Fisk Jubilee Singers based on Exodus 8:1)

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Job 41:1-34)

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (Genesis 18:1)

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon 1:1)

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

A Time to Love and A Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (I Kings 2:3, Joshua 22:14)

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner (Psalms 137)

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For further reading: Brush Up Your Bible by Michael Macrone

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