Paul Cézanne’s father, a banker, was fond of telling his son, “Young man, young man, think of the future! With genius you die, with money you live.” At least this is according to Émile Zola, who recalled the words of admonishment in one of his letters to his friend Paul. The two had first met as teenagers at boarding school in the 1850s.
In 2008 a Bronx-based Red Sox fan worked one day of construction at the new Yankee Stadium—having said up to then he wouldn’t go there “for all the hot dogs in the world”—so he could bury a Red Sox jersey in the cement, hoping to “jinx that stadium.” His defiant act was reported to Yankee officials, who spent $50,000 digging up the jersey and threatened legal action. “It was worth it,” the fan said.
“No concrete test of what is really true has ever been agreed upon,” wrote William James in 1893. “When, indeed, one remembers that the most striking practical application to life of the doctrine of objective certitude has been the conscientious labors of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, one feels less tempted than ever to lend the doctrine a respectful ear.”
The first known “laboratory rat” was used in 1828 in an experiment about fasting. Guinea pigs have been put to scientific use since the 1780s, when Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier measured their heat production. The first recorded usage of guinea pig to liken a person or a thing to a test subject was in 1891, by George Bernard Shaw in his book The Quintessence of Ibsenism.
Beaver fur can contain between 12,000 and 23,000 hairs per square centimeter, and it is particularly good for making thick, pliable, water-resistant felt. In 1733 the Hudson Bay Company valued one prime-quality beaver skin at the same worth as one brass kettle, two pounds of Brazilian tobacco, one gallon of brandy, or a pound and a half of gunpowder.
After receiving a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, Aldous Huxley wrote to George Orwell, “I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals—the ultimate revolution?” By this he meant “the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology.” Thirty-two years earlier, Huxley had taught French to Orwell at Eton College.
In August 2018 data scientist David Bamman examined how authors recently interviewed in the New York Times’ By the Book column answered the question “What’s on your nightstand?” Women mentioned male and female authors almost equally; men mentioned male authors more than 79 percent of the time. “Don’t read in bed,” advised Fran Lebowitz. “It’s too stimulating. Watch TV instead. It’s boring.”
Lorenzo de’ Medici once observed a young sculptor complete the head of an old and wrinkled faun whose mouth he had rendered open. While astonished at the craftsmanship, Lorenzo pointed out that old men never have all their teeth. Once the great patron of the arts had left, the artist knocked out one of the teeth; when Lorenzo returned and saw the statue again, he was so taken with the new version that he decided to adopt the artist, whose name was Michelangelo.
In 1387 the physicians to Charles II of Navarre, in order to treat his illness, soaked his sheets in aqua vitae, a distilled wine, and wrapped him in them to enhance the curative power that the liquid was supposed to possess. The sheets were then sewn shut by a maid, who, instead of cutting the final bit of string, set a candle to it. The alcohol-soaked king went up in a blaze and the maid ran away, leaving him to burn to death.
Seneca the Younger tells of Hostius Quadra, who installed mirrors in his bedroom to reflect distorted images. “He relished the exaggerated endowment of his own organ as much as if it were real,” Seneca complained. Quadra confirmed: “If I could,” he said, “I’d have that size in the flesh; since I can’t, I’ll feast on the fantasy.”
A Japanese shogun in 1615 attempted to eradicate the popular fashions of the kabuki-mono, young men from the fringes of samurai communities who favored long hair with shaved foreheads and temples, large swords with showy red scabbards, imported velvet collars, and short kimonos with lead weights sewn into the hem. “Clothing should not be confusing,” stated a new samurai dress code.
Roman physician Galen recounted a debate from which a medical rival “departed in a big hurry, knowing, I imagine, that if he remained he would be proved wrong.” Galen then wrote a book to be delivered to the rival’s followers. “You walked away,” it reads, “behaving like an athletic competitor who seizes the crown and flees before the contest; but today you will not escape refutation, for this book will follow you.”