Futility Closet is Greg Ross' website (and podcast) of astounding and intriguing curiosities unearthed from old library books. Futility Closet 2 (the followup to last year's Futility Closet 1) is the second print collection of "entertaining oddities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics. Many of the wonderful things Greg finds would probably be lost forever if not for his hard work and keen sense of the unusual.
A partial list of what you'll find in volume 2: Joyous dogs, soul-stirring Frenchmen, itinerant goats, runaway balloons, mournful badgers, U-turning communists, manful hummingbirds, rainmaking judges, commemorative asteroids, seaborne horses, recalcitrant Ws, musical constitutions, intractable biplanes, vengeful whales, poetic knees, hairless trombonists, abusive New Zealanders, unreconstituted cannibals, literate rats, mysterious blimps, supernatural copyright, thrice-conscripted Koreans, superannuated physicists, imaginary golf courses, willow cathedrals, irate Thackerays, and hundreds more.
Enjoy these excerpts!
The Five Rooms
Here’s the floor plan of a house with five rooms. Can you draw a continuous line that passes through each of the 16 wall segments once and once only? If it’s possible, show how; if it’s not, explain why.
In composing a state map of New York in the 1930s, the General Drafting Company wanted to be sure that competing mapmakers would not simply copy its work. So the company’s founder, Otto G. Lindberg, and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, scrambled their initials and placed the fictional town of Agloe at the intersection of two dirt roads in the Catskills north of Roscoe.
Several years later, they discovered Agloe on a Rand McNally map and confronted their competitor. But Rand was innocent: It had got the name from the county government, which had taken it from the Agloe General Store, which now occupied the intersection. The store had taken the name from a map by Esso, which had (apparently) copied it from Lindberg’s map. Agloe had somehow clambered from imagination into reality.
Similarly, in 2001 editors placed a fake word in the New Oxford American Dictionary as a trap for other lexicographers who might steal their material. Fittingly, the word was esquivalience, “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities; the shirking of duties.”
Sure enough, the word turned up at Dictionary.com (it’s since been taken down), citing Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary.
And as with Agloe, the invention has taken on a life of its own. NOAD editor Christine Lindberg, who coined esquivalience, told the Chicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly. “I especially like the critical, judgmental tone I can get out of it: ‘Those esquivalient little wretches.’ Sounds literate and nasty all in one breath. I like that.”
Who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Strangely, no one knows. The novel is credited to B. Traven, but exactly who that is has been a matter of speculation for more than 80 years.
Most of Traven’s output was published between 1926 and 1939, composed in German sprinkled with Americanisms and frequently concerning leftist politics and Mexican history.
The writer himself never came forward, and he left only intriguing clues to his identity: In the 1920s apparently he was associated with Munich anarchist Erich Mühsam, and later a Mexican journalist discovered a bank account in Traven’s name in Acapulco. When John Huston filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1947, a man claiming to be Traven’s agent visited the set and appeared to take an unusual interest in the proceedings, but he disappeared afterward.
Apparently that’s how he wanted it: It now appears that the writer took on at least four distinct identities during his lifetime. One of these men wrote, “I shall always and at all times prefer to be pissed on by dogs than reveal who I am.”