Did You Know . . . ?

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” is an inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York City.  It is often erroneously considered to be the motto of the United States Postal Service.  Its origin may surprise you.  About 2500 years ago a Greek writer named Herodotus wrote a book entitled The Histories about (among other diverse things) the wars the Greeks fought against the Persians.  In it, Herodotus, considered the father of history, paid grudging tribute a number of times to his bitter enemies – quite an even-handed thing to do.  One such tribute was his statement about the Persian courier service:  “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.”

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There is more to the sometimes over-the-top Italian actor Roberto Benigni than you might think after watching his performances in movies like The Son of the Pink Panther, and his wonderful but frenetic performance in Life is Beautiful.  In fact, Benigni can recite all 100 cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy from memory, and in the original fourteenth century Italian.  Strange as it might seem, he is considered to be an expert on Dante’s magnum opus and often gives lectures at universities on the work.

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In 1807 noted essayist Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, published a book entitled Tales from Shakespeare.  The book, which is still available in a number of editions, was written so that children could read and easily understand the stories from Shakespeare’s plays.  Eleven years earlier, in 1796, Mary had a nervous breakdown and killed her mother with a kitchen knife.  From that time onward she had to be kept under close supervision.  When their senile father died, Charles became Mary’s guardian.  When preparing Tales from Shakespeare, Charles wrote the stories of the tragedies while Mary wrote about the comedies – probably a good idea.  Charles and Mary Lamb are the central characters in Peter Ackroyd’s 2004 novel The Lambs of London.

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A “penny dreadful” was a type of British fiction that was popular during the 19th century.  The works, which were serialized in booklet form at a penny a part, were shocking and lurid.  They were generally aimed at working class adolescents.  Varney the Vampire (written 50 years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula) and String of Pearls (which introduced us to Sweeney Todd) are examples of penny dreadful fiction.

I used to work with an English lady who said her mother would sometime scold her and say, “If you don’t behave, Sweeney Todd will get you!”

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While reading a Scottish book called Bad Companions (1930) by William Roughead, Lillian Hellman came across a chapter about a court case in Edinburgh in which a young girl falsely accused her female teachers of having a lesbian affair.  Hellman decided to write a fictional work based on the incident, and produced her first play The Children’s Hour.  The play, which debuted to rave reviews in New York, was banned in a number of cities including London, Chicago, and (of course) Boston.  Though it was well received, it was rejected by the committee that awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama due to its content.  Because of this and a number of other supposed slights by the committee, the New York Drama Critics Circle Award was created.

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There may be some disagreement concerning who really invented the telephone, but not where and when the first telephone book was published.  The New Haven, Connecticut “telephone directory,” as it was called, was first published in 1878.  Calling it a “book” is a stretch since there were only 50 listings, and all were on a single sheet of paper.  Most of the listings were for businesses or public services (such as the police department), but there were 11 private individuals on the list – four of whom worked for the telephone company.  The other unique feature of the directory was that no telephone numbers were published because, at the time, a local operator had to place each call.

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