Hivemind bleg: distant reading, 18th-century-style

Not too long ago, I read a letter in which a young woman recorded the hour of the day when she would be reading a certain book, in hopes that her correspondent would read the same book at the same time, and a communion would be established between them across distance. It would make a great anecdote for an essay I’m trying to write—but I can’t remember where I read the letter! Does it ring a bell for anyone? My hazy memory is that the writer of the letter was English, though she might have been American, and that she was writing in the 18th or 19th century. She may have been writing to her sister or mother rather than to a friend.

Google hasn’t been much help, because all the search terms I’m looking for (“letter,” “same time,” “book”) are too common. Also, as I remember, the letter itself was a little hermetic about what was going on, and it was an editor’s annotation that made it clear what the young woman was up to. Through Google I did find a 1793 letter from Maria Edgeworth, in which Edgeworth seems to have been making fun of the notion of making “a bargain with anyone I loved, to read the same book with them at the same hour,” so I suspect that this particular kind of bibliomancy was a thing. If anyone knows of any scholarly discussion of the practice, please send that my way, too, because I’m coming up empty-handed in Jstor.

Coming home by rail, 1907

1907.08.08 Coming home by rail

Recto: Hope you are / Coming / Home / by / Rail / and not by wheel / M. K. / H.

Verso: Miss Mabel Duryea / 66 Howard St. / Albany / N. Y.

Postmarked: Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 8 August 1907, 9pm

Richard Terzian, 1924–2015

2013.11.28 Richard Terzian at Thanksgiving

Peter’s father, Richard Terzian, died at home in Latham, New York, on Sunday, 18 January 2015, at age ninety. Born in Watervliet, New York, on 13 July 1924, he was a member of the Armenian American community and was given the baptismal name of Dicran. He grew up in Troy, where he remembered playing kick the can, kick the stick, baseball, and basketball in the streets. In 1942, during World War II, he left high school, where he had been studying electrical wiring, to work at the Watervliet Arsenal, and in March 1943 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After training at Camp Upton, New York, and the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, he served in England, France, and Germany, assembling jeeps and driving trucks, until November 1945.

After finishing high school, in 1946, he attended the State University of New York’s College for Teachers at Albany, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and a master’s of science in 1958. There he met Barbara Ann Mendoza, Peter’s mother, whom he married in 1959. Until 1981 he taught high school math and driver’s education in a number of Capital District school systems. He was an aficionado of the arts, especially the Impressionists, and loved golf and heated political discussions. He was a warm, sweet, generous man, and a great kidder.

There will be a wake at the Dufresne and Cavanaugh Funeral Home, 149 Old Loudon Road, Latham, NY 12110, on Thursday, January 22, from 5pm to 7pm, and a funeral mass at St. Peter’s Armenian Apostolic Church, 100 Troy Schenectady Road, Watervliet, NY 12189, on Friday, January 23, at 10:30am. If you’d like to make a donation in his name, please consider Community Hospice and the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

1943 Richard Terzian in uniform with friends at mother's house. Front row: Ed Kazanjian, John Avakian, Richard Terzian. Back row: unknown, Ralph Vartigan, Charlie Partamian, John Jevanian

1945 Tom-Segreto, Noreen-Bayliss, Richard Terzian playing cards in England

1967 Barbara and Richard Terzian with Don Manuel Osorio

1968.08 Richard Terzian holding Peter

2006 Richard, Peter, and Barbara Terzian in Latham

2004.08.15 Richard Terzian holding Nina on the back porch

Something different from Bill, 1907

1907.06.03 Something different from Bill

Recto: Something different and Variety you know / is the spice of life. / Bill. / 6/3/07

Verso, script: Miss Daisy Gillespie. / Ann Arbor / Mich / 213 N Fifth Ave.

Verso, printed: Union Postale Universelle / Carte Postale / [Japanese text] / Sumbikwai.

Postmarked: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 3 June 1907, 11:00pm and Ann Arbor, Michigan, 4 June 1907, 6:00am

Lentils with gingery spinach

Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian.

Lentils with gingery spinach


Serves 2-3 people


  • 1 medium-to-large onion
  • olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 1 cup dried green lentils
  • 1 piece of fresh ginger
  • 20 oz (2 bunches) fresh spinach
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • plain yogurt


  1. Peel, halve, and slice the onion. In an omelette pan, sauté the onion in 2 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion turns reddish-brown (about 30 minutes).
  2. Peel and chop the garlic. Inspect the lentils, removing any stones, and rinse and drain them. In a small saucepan, sauté the garlic in 1 tbsp of olive oil for 30 seconds, and then add the lentils and 2.5 cups of water. Bring to a boil, and set a timer for a 30-minute simmer, partially covering the pot.
  3. Peel and chop the ginger. Rinse the spinach, discarding the stems. Spin the leaves in a salad spinner. If you feel any grit at the bottom of the spinner, rinse the spinach again.
  4. When the onions are brown, spoon them onto a folded paper towel.
  5. When there are 5 minutes left on the timer for the lentils, heat about 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large soup pot and sauté the ginger for 30 seconds, while stirring. Add the spinach and 0.5 tsp salt. Continue stirring until the spinach has wilted (4 to 5 minutes).
  6. When the lentils are done, add about 1 tsp salt, and black pepper to taste.
  7. Place in individual serving bowls: a ladle of lentils, a forkful of spinach, a dollop of yogurt, and a forkful of caramelized onions.

(For a one-page PDF version, click here.)

Campfire with dog, August 1908

1908.08.24 Miami river campfire with dog

Recto: Taken Aug 24th –08 / Big Miami river between / Tippecanoe City and West Charleston O

Verso: Many thanks / for the cigars / Hope to see you / in Springfield / some-time / Frank Mc. / Mr Frank Prichard / 321 Fourth St / LaSalle / Illinois

Postmarked: 16 September 1908, Springfield, Ohio

Notes, 2014

Maybe the conception of a novel has to come during the dying of a year—a new world created out of the sorrow of losing the one you’re in.

No one will share an e-cigarette, so the habit will die out. Also, if one is allowed to smoke them inside, they’ll be deprived of cigarettes’ other great attraction: the pretext for a break outdoors.

“People are like butterflies. . . . But a butterfly under a magnifying glass is a monster.” —Jiří Mucha

“If there had been many of us and we could have found each other out, there’s no knowing what we mightn’t have done.” —Kate Croy’s disreputable father, in Henry James, The Wings of the Dove

All things are busy; only I
Neither bring honey with the bees,
Nor flow’rs to make that, nor the husbandry
To water these.

—George Herbert, “Employment (I)”

Why does the dog follow the vacuum cleaner around with such a stricken look?

The god Internet is hungry, and demands to be fed with a master key to all Brooklyn-literary-scenester romans-à-clef.

About halfway through Wings of the Dove one catches a distinct whiff of The Sacred Fount: Can Milly be cured by fucking?

“Something whispers us that we have no right to make a mock of calamities like these, or to turn the truth of things into the puppet and plaything of our fancies.” —Hazlitt, on King John

My one hope is that when civilization finally starts to dissolve, there will be a few weeks when I can get away with bringing my dog to the movies.

The beginning of corruption is when one is given a secret.

Is it possible to have meaningful oversight of a secret organization without compelling it to reveal the truth about itself to people it doesn’t necessarily trust?

You may my glories and my state depose,
But not my griefs; still am I king of those.

—Shakespeare, Richard II

“Let greatness go, so it go without thee.” —Isabel to Richard II, in Samuel Daniel, Civil Wars

“I am Richard II, know ye not that?” —Elizabeth I

I tried just awfully hard. But that’s the fascinating thing about art, anyhow; that good intentions and praiseworthy industry don’t count a damn. If they did, it wouldn’t be much more interesting than bookkeeping.” —Willa Cather, Letters

“If you should marry the handsomest, and most accomplished and superficially agreeable man in the world, you little know the misery that would overwhelm you, if, after all, you should find him to be a worthless reprobate, or even an impracticable fool.”

“But what are all the fools and reprobates to do, aunt? If everybody followed your advice, the world would soon come to an end.”

—Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

“. . . and my hair—only my hair, nothing else—looked drunk.” —Dickens, David Copperfield

“And you are one of the fortunate ones who can?” said Miss Ridley, using a dry tone.

“I am one of the unfortunate ones who do. That is how I should put it.”

—Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past

bonze (noun): a Japanese or Chinese Buddhist teacher

How strange Untermensch looked, small and dark, gripping his briefcase, the sign of the undefeated intellectual, and looking in his eagerness like some bonze of an unknown religion, approaching the source of his devotion!”

—Penelope Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

beriozka (noun): a hard-currency shop in Russia, during the Communist era (like Tuzex shops in Czechoslovakia)

Everyone else had gone, during the two days they had just spent in Leningrad, to the berioska shop, and had bought themselves a large fur hat with ear-flaps.

—Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

auguste (noun): a circus clown wearing ill-fitting clothes

“Incidentally, in the interests of accuracy, I did not appear as a clown, but as an auguste, who does not speak.”

—Fitzgerald, The Golden Child

ait (or eyot) (noun): a small island in a river

But what struck me most was, that, from the time they began to congregate, forsaking the chimneys and houses, they roosted every night in the osier-beds of the aits of that river.

—Gilbert White, The Natural History of Selborne

cere (noun): the skin at the base of a bird’s beak

Its cere and feet were yellow, and the circle of its eyelids a bright yellow.

—White, Selborne

He was old enough that sometimes, at a distance, he mistook the yoke in the wires of an Iphone headset for a crucifix.

cassone (noun): a large Italian coffer, to hold a bride’s trousseau

She was standing by herself, looking at the painting of a mythological subject on the cassone.

—Penelope Fitzgerald, Innocence

It was late capitalism again, so late that the children of the rich had given up the wish to be artists of anything but retail.

“. . . the smug laboratory of her afterthought . . .” —Henry James, The Golden Bowl

mort (noun): a large amount, a great deal

“We have had a mort of talk, sir,” said Mr. Peggotty to me.

—Dickens, Copperfield

“The moment was to come—and it finally came with an effect as penetrating as the sound that follows the pressure of an electric button.” —James, Golden Bowl

“The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed.” —G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

“There were times when lust felt like a kind of idealism.” —Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

A category: people in the city whose names you aren’t expected to know and who don’t know yours but who recognize you and whom you recognize.

“I belong to an unfortunate generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” —Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

“Nothing could be decently hated except eternity.” —Lampedusa, Leopard

America promises never to torture again unless it feels like it has to.

“I am not a young man in a novel.” —Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

poke (verb): to aim one’s gun at a moving target, rather than swinging and firing

The necessity of wasting no time and of killing with certainty had a terrible effect upon the shooting, making me poke out of anxiety.

—T. H. White, The Goshawk

eyas (noun): a young hawk, not yet fully trained [it’s etymologically the same word as the French niais, but it swapped its n with the indefinite article, the way an eft and a newt did]

It must have been a family, the parents and two or three eyases already well grown but not yet driven out.

—White, Goshawk

vinaigrette (noun): a bottle or box holding a sponge soaked with smelling salts

Apparently the presence of a clergyman of the Church of England in her morning-room was consolation enough, as though, like some moral vinaigrette, he had but to be filled by a bishop, introduced, unstoppered, and gently waved about the room, to diffuse a refreshing atmosphere.

—Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show

spinney (noun): a small clump of trees, planted or preserved in order to shelter game birds

. . . the portrait of grandpapa Aspen, . . . paused on the brink of his spinney and listening with contemplative pleasure to the footsteps of the poacher within.

—Warner, Summer Will Show

Wayward sourcing of the truth

While re-reading David Copperfield recently, I came across a turn of phrase that seemed oddly familiar. It’s in a line of dialogue from the saintly Agnes, as she explains to David that by sheer goodness she hopes to be able to save her alcoholic father from the malign influence of Uriah Heep:

“I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.”

I found myself idly wondering: Could this be the source of Václav Havel’s famous revolutionary motto, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”? Was Havel a big Dickens fan?

Well, no. I mean, maybe he liked Dickens, but inconveniently, I am reminded, upon searching the archives at the Václav Havel Library, that in 1999, Havel himself traced the origin of the phrase to Jan Hus, who wrote, “Truth prevails over all,” shortly before being burned at the stake. Who knew that Agnes was so thorough in her study of medieval Czech church history…


The Wall Street Journal asked me to contribute to “Who Read What in 2014,” a compilation of people’s favorites books published this past year, and I named Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, and Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer.

Review of Lee’s “Penelope Fitzgerald”

My review of Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald appears in the January 2015 issue of Harper’s, which should be showing up in subscribers’ snailmailboxes imminently, and appear on newsstands in a week or so. Herewith, a teaser:

Review of Hermione Lee's Penelope Fitzgerald

Update, 5:30pm: Subscribers can now read the review online.