Friday, January 31, 2014


Back in the spring of 2006, I sat down for a casual conversation with the President.

Okay, it was in Burbank. And it was an interview for a magazine article I was writing. And it was a pretend president. But still…  Jimmy Smits seemed commanding anyway. It was only about 48 hours before some eight million viewers would watch Smits—as Democratic presidential candidate Matt Santos on “The West Wing”—eke out a victory over Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda).

Folks were calling him the “Abe Lincoln of Latinos” for snagging a stint as a presidential candidate (the irony being that there had always been a Latino president on “The West Wing,” as Martin Sheen was born Ramon Estevez). Smits told me that he thought long and hard about accepting the final-season role on the NBC drama, “But I can show you letters and e-mails I received from people in the business who heard about it, and they all said the same thing: You have to do this. You have to do this.”

So perhaps the line between fantasy and reality isn’t as distinct as one might assume. When Smits was on "L.A. Law", fans would approach him about legal matters, and Latinos would tell him he was the reason they pursued a law degree. Maybe it’s not so surprising that a headline on the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper that hadn’t endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1872, declared “MATTHEW V. SANTOS FOR PRESIDENT.”

I am fascinated by fictional presidents. Thus I offer a Why Not 100 tour of pen, paper and Pennsylvania Avenue—a journey through the long list of literary presidents. I won’t even touch film and TV here. Or stage productions. Or comic books. Just U.S. presidents in the pages of novels. And there are, literally, hundreds of them.


One of the most appealing aspects of science fiction is its potential to become fact. It is fantasy rife with possibility. Not always, to be sure, but often enough to launch the imagination. Case in point (and pardon the alliteration): The prescient practitioners of possibility in the pantheon of sci-fi writers. Seers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke.

How prophetic were they and some other science fiction writers, including the likes of E.M. Forster and Mark Twain? Consider these 19 notions that came true, roughly in chronological order of their actual invention:

1. THE SUBMARINE (predictor: Jules Verne)

Submarines—or submarine-like vessels, at least—have been around a lot longer than we all think. First military submarine capable of independent underwater operation was a hand-powered acorn-shaped device in 1775. It was called the Turtle. The first submarine not relying on human power for propulsion was launched in France in 1863. It was called the Nautilus. So why credit Verne, who published Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea seven years later and gave Captain Nemo’s submarine the same name? Because he imagined its potential—militarily, politically, socially, even psychologically. Plus, the first submarine to operate successfully in the open ocean didn’t arrive until nearly 30 years later.

Verne conceived “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent, and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale… The facts relating to this apparition (entered in various log-books) agreed in most respects as to the shape of the object or creature in question, the untiring rapidity of its movements, its surprising power of locomotion, and the peculiar life with which it seemed endowed. If it was a whale, it surpassed in size all those hitherto classified in science.”

2. SCUBA DIVING (predictor: Jules Verne)

Here again, Jules Verne didn’t so much as invent scuba diving as fast-forward the possibilities. In 1860, a decade before Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a French engineer designed a self-contained breathing set with a backpack cylindrical air tank. It was meant to help miners avoid drowning in flooded mines. Four years later, he and a navy officer adapted the invention to diving. Divers could go no more than 10 meters deep and for no longer than 30 minutes at a time. In fact, the typical diver of the day wasn’t even that far along—still wearing a cumbersome suit, tethered to a ship by an air hose. But Verne’s apparatus “consisted of a reservoir of thick iron plates, in which I store the air under a pressure of fifty atmospheres. This reservoir is fixed on the back by means of braces." With this gear, the diver could explore the deep for seven or eight hours at a time.


William Shakespeare claimed, “Brevity is the soul of wit”—a self-supporting line if ever there was one. Another genius wordsmith, Mark Twain, once admitted, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Which, as any writer knows, has a kernel of truth to it. This was typical Twain because it was both pithy and profound. It makes you chuckle and ponder at the same time.

With that in mind, it’s time to celebrate a form of writing that isn’t often championed—headline writing. What’s that you say? How hard could it be? Well, simply take a trip to the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a remarkable museum devoted to celebrating the First Amendment. Walk into any bathroom on any floor of the museum There you’ll find tiles embedded in the walls that reveal failed headlines from history, headlines like BABIES ARE WHAT THE MOTHER EATS and RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE.

So headline writing can be a bit of an art form. And, of course, as Twain so brilliantly exemplified, satire is, too. If you can combine the two—the succinct and the satirical—well, then you can strike literary gold. And there’s no better example of that combination than “The Onion,” which in 2013 celebrated 25 years of laconic lampooning.

Start touring “The Onion” headlines from over the years, and you’ll soon realize that it’s a hard habit to break. So I’ve taken it upon myself to gather 85 of the best ones. Of course, this being a Why Not Books blog, we’ll start with a publishing parody (and end with another):

1. Children, Creepy Middle-Aged Weirdos Swept Up in Harry Potter Craze

2. Winner Didn’t Even Know It Was Pie-Eating Contest

3. CIA Realizes It’s Been Using Black Highlighters All These Years

4. Wealthy Teen Nearly Experiences Consequences

5. Jurisprudence Fetishist Gets Off on Technicality

6. Archeological Dig Uncovers Ancient Race Of Skeleton People

7. Christian Rock Band Cleans Up Hotel Room

8. Expert On Anteaters Wasted Entire Life Studying Anteaters

9. Sub-Orbital Ballistic Propulsion Engineer ‘Not Exactly A Rocket Scientist’

10. Dolphin Spends Amazing Vacation Swimming With Stockbroker

11. ‘I Am Under 18’ Button Clicked For First Time In History Of Internet

12. Clinton Deploys Vowels To Bosnia; Cities Of Sjlbvdnzv, Grzny to Be First Recipients

13. Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution

14. North Korea Celebrates As Kim Jong-Un Becomes First Man To Walk On Moon

15. Standard Deviation Not Enough For Perverted Statistician

16. Garage Band Actually Believes There Is A ‘Terre Haute’ Sound

17. Powerful ‘His And Hers’ Towel Lobby Stalls Gay Marriage Legislation

18. World Death Rate Holding Steady at 100 Percent

19. Ghost Of Christmas Future Taunts Children With Images Of Playstation 5

20. WA-(Headline Continued on Page 2)

21. Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

22. Scientists Trace Heat Wave To Massive Star At Center Of Solar System

23. Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory

24. Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’

25. Man Prone To Lying Beds Woman Prone To Lying Prone

26. ACLU Defends Nazi’s Right To Burn Down ACLU Headquarters

27. Gay Teen Worried He Might Be Christian

28. Study: 72 Percent Of High-Fives Unwarranted

29. Ninja Parade Slips Through Town Unnoticed Once Again

30. Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeroes

31. God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule

32. Drugs Win Drug War

33. Kitten Thinks of Nothing But Murder All Day

34. Supreme Court Rules Supreme Court Rules

35. Bush Refuses To Set Timetable For Withdrawal Of Head From White House Banister

36. National Funk Congress Deadlocked On Get Up/Get Down Issue

37. Lance Armstrong Wants To Tell Nation Something But Nation Has To Promise Not To Get Mad

38. Bleary-Eyed Cosmopolitan Staffer Cranks Out 10 Billionth Way to Bring Out the Animal In Your Man

39. Field Trip Mishap Fulfils Child’s Wish To Be Oscar Meyer Weiner

40. Hate Crime Bill Stalled By Pro-Hate Lobby

41. Soulmate Dropped For New, Better Soulmate

42. Shell Executives Accuse Oil-Covered Otter Of Playing It Up

43. Kuwait Deploys Troop

44. Rest of U2 Perfectly Fine With Africans Starving

45. Bush Determined To Find Warehouse Where Ark of Covenant Is Stored

46. Pen Pal Becomes Pen Foe

47. Taylor Swift Now Dating Senator Joseph McCarthy

48. Fall Canceled After 3 Billion Seasons

49. Earthquake Kills 54 Rescue Workers’ Weekend Plans

50. 62-Year-Old With Gun Only One Standing Between Nation And Full-Scale Government Takeover

51. Desperate Vegetarians Declare Cows Plants

52. Study Reveals: Babies Are Stupid

53. Obama Begins Inauguration Festivities With Ceremonial Drone Flyover

54. Area Boyfriend Keeps Bringing Up Scrabble Victory

55. Man Who Likes to Move-It Move-It Still Searching For Perfect Song

56. Denver Optometrist Not Sure Why He Has a Gay Cult Following

57. Snackistan Ceases Chiplomatic Relations With Frito-Laysia

58. Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle With Cancer

59. Rotation of Earth Plunged Entire North American Continent Into Darkness

60. Star Trek Introduces Alien Character With Totally Different Forehead Wrinkles

61. Basketball Star Blames God For Defeat

62. Report: Unemployment High Because People Keep Blowing Their Job Interviews

63. Scissors Defeats Rock

64. U.S. Mint Employee Disciplined For Putting Own Face On Nickels

65. Decision To Ask Girl Out Made Using 10-Sided Die

66. Pop Culture Expert Surprisingly Not Ashamed of Self

67. Head Deadhead Dead

68. Side Effects Sound Awesome

69. Jesus Surprises ‘700 Club’ With Walk-On Appearance

70. Grandma Knitting Escape Ladder

71. Perky ‘Canada” Has Own Government Laws

72. Cool Dad is Horrible Father

73. New Report Finds Climate Change Caused By Seven Billion Key Individuals

74. Parents Finally Cave and Buy 33-Year-Old Son Playstation 1

75. Hijackers Surprised To Find Selves In Hell

76. Zombie Nutritionist Recommends ‘All-Brain’ Diet

77. USDA Rolls Out New School Brunch Program For Wealthier Districts

78. Even Radioshack CEO Doesn’t Know How They Stay In Business

79. Obama Finishes Deal To Get Every American A Free Parrot

80. U.S. Deploys Very Special Forces To Iraq

81. British Royal Family Sadly Announces Death of Prince Charming

82. PR Firm Advises U.S. To Cut Ties With Alabama

83. Road Kill Squirrel Remembered For Being Frantic, Indecisive

84. Nabisco Discontinues Wheat Thicks

85. Grisly Remains of 15 Hobbits Discovered in Peter Jackson’s Attic

Monday, January 27, 2014


Here’s something you don’t hear every day: Ten of the world’s top crime writers are competing to see who gets to have a morgue named after them. Yup. A morgue.

It’s part of the “Million for a Morgue” campaign to help Scotland’s University of Dundee raise funds for a new research facility at the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification. Fans can go the Million for a Morgue website, donate money and make their vote count. The competition closes once one million pounds have been raised, and the writer with the most votes—whether it’s Tess Gerritsen, Kathy Reichs, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Mark Billingham, Jeffrey Deaver, Jeff Lindsay, Stuart MacBride, Peter James, or Val McDermid—gets immortalized (unlike the corpses stored therein).

Which got me thinking: What other things have been named after authors?

It can be a somewhat tricky excursion into the facts. For instance, there is widespread speculation that the Oh Henry! candy bar was named for William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the pseudonym O. Henry. Not true. Apparently, it was named for a boy who frequented the company store and was often asked—“Oh, Henry!”—to perform odd jobs.

But for this installment of the Why Not 100, I did manage to locate 22 pretty darn cool (and a few pretty darn curious) entities—from beers to butterflies and from whales to words—named after authors.

I’ll rank them, too, roughly according to the impressiveness of the honor:

1. A dinosaur (Michael Crichton)

I mean, c’mon. A dinosaur? Imagine the wonder on the face of any eight-year-old boy if you told him that someday somebody was going to name a prehistoric beast after him. An ankylosaur species, discovered somewhat recently and formally described by a Chinese paleontologist, was named in honor of the author of Jurassic Park. So while the beast may be extinct, it is forever immortalized as a Crichtonsaurus.

2. A whale (Herman Melville)

This is a close second because it’s similar—a massive beast, now extinct. In 2010, scientist discovered an ancient whale who chomped huge chunks of flesh from other whales millions of years ago. It grew up to 60 feet long and sported tusk-like teeth. Along with whales, it liked to dine on sharks and dolphins. Pointing out that the author of Moby Dick included a chapter about fossils (the whale’s skull was found in the Peruvian desert) and made frequent digressions into natural history, researchers named it Leviathin melvillei. As one UCLA paleontologist put it, “You gotta love any time you get a nod to literature in taxonomy. It was a big whale, so why not?"

3. A giant tree (J.R.R. Tolkien)

There are a good many things throughout the world named after the master of Middle-Earth—from restaurants to streets to schooners. Many of them can be found in Tolkien’s native England. But nothing quite compares to the honor bestowed by Canada’s Wilderness Committee, which launched a campaign several years ago to force the Canadian government to take urgent action and ban old growth logging. Sounds a bit like re-taking Mirkwood or preserving Lorien, right? Well, in British Columbia’s upper Walbran Valley, one of Canada’s most massive trees—an ancient cedar measuring 15.7 feet in diameter—is named the Tolkien Giant.

4. A waterfall (the Bronte sisters)

Way back in 1854, Charlotte Bronte wrote about a waterfall—“a perfect torrent racing over the rocks, white and beautiful!” She and her sisters, Emily and Anne, loved that place, located just outside of the village of Haworth  in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Now it has a name: Bronte Waterfalls.

5. An asteroid (Iain Banks)

In June 2013, the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union gave asteroid 5099 an official name—Iainbanks. The late sci-fi master didn’t beat back cancer long enough to see it happen (his last novel, The Quarry, was recently released posthumously). But as one committee member put it, the asteroid—nearly four miles wide and residing in the Main Asteroid Belt of the Sol system—“will be referred to as such for as long as Earth Culture may endure.” My favorite part of the story is the official citation: "Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was a Scottish writer best known for the Culture series of science fiction novels; he also wrote fiction as Iain Banks. An evangelical atheist and lover of whisky, he scorned social media and enjoyed writing music. He was an extra in Monty Python & The Holy Grail."

Pretty cool, right? But not actually uncommon. There are also minor planets named, for instance, Janeausten, Annefrank, Lewiscarroll, Cslewis, Tolkien, Kafka, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Jack London, Orwell, Dickens, Dahl, Clarke, Asimov, and Bradbury. And speaking of Bradbury…

6. A mars landing spot (Ray Bradbury)

The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury’s classic collection of stories from the 1940s, imagined man's experiences on Mars (and interactions with the telepathic Martians). In “The Earth Men” he wrote, "The Martian desert lay broiling like a prehistoric mud-pot, waves of heat rising and shimmering. There was a small rocket-ship reclining upon a hilltop nearby." On August 22, 2012—which would have been Bradbury’s 92nd birthday—NASA paid homage to the science fiction author who died a couple of months earlier. The team overseeing Mars rover Curiosity tweeted, “In tribute, I dedicate my landing spot on Mars to you, Ray Bradbury. Greetings from Bradbury Landing!”

7. A Mercury crater (Madeleine L’Engle)

A whole bunch of big holes on Mercury have been named after writers. The list includes Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Flaubert, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Homer, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Pablo Neruda, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sophocles, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, and Emile Zola. And in March 2013, the International Astronomical Union approved the latest names for nine impact craters on the planet closest to the sun. One of them is now forever known as L’Engle, in honor of the author of A Wrinkle in Time.

8. An airport (Ian Fleming)

Ian Fleming, the novelist who created James Bond, named his character after ornithologist James Bond, who allowed Fleming to use his Jamaica estate for writing. Fleming later purchased his own estate on the Caribbean island and named it Goldeneye. A few years ago, Jamaica completed upgraded and expanded an airport used primarily by private jets. It used to be known as the Boscobel Airstrip. It is now Ian Fleming International Airport.

9. A town (Rudyard Kipling)

There are a number of towns named after authors. And there are a number of locales named after the author of The Jungle Book, including a lake and a small village in England. But here’s what I like about this: There are actually two towns named after him on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—about 100 miles apart, each with a smattering of residents. One, about 30 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, is called Rudyard. The other, at the head of Green Bay on the northern end of Lake Michigan, is Kipling. They were named by railroad general manager Frederick Underwood in honor of his favorite author, and Kipling loved it. In a thank-you note to Underwood, he wrote, “I write to beg you to send me a photograph if possible, of either Rudyard or Kipling or preferentially both. I shall take a deep interest in their little welfares.”

10. A Chicago neighborhood (Washington Irving)

I was born and raised in the Chicago area, and I never realized that Irving Park, the neighborhood on the northwest side of the city, was named after Washington Irving. It was named by a New Yorker named Charles Race, who bought the land and honored the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Still, I think I’d rather live in Loma Portal. It’s a neighborhood in the community of Point Loma, California. I’m not sure I’d like the fact that it’s one of those look-at-me neighborhoods that goes all out with holiday decorations. And I probably wouldn’t love the “Point Loma Pause” (all conversation tends to cease frequently because it’s in the takeoff flight path of a nearby airfield). But the streets—I’d love the streets. There are countless thoroughfares around the world named for authors. But in Loma Portal, the east-west streets are in alphabetical-author order: Alcott, Browing, Curtis, Dumas, Elliott, Freeman, Goldsmith, Homer, Ibsen, James, Kingsley, Lytton, Macauley, Newell, Oliphant, Poe, Quimby, Russell, Sterne, Tennyson, Udall, Voltaire, Whittier, Xenophon, Yonge, and Zola. A recent book was even published about all of them: Reading Between the Lampposts: The Literary Giants of Loma Portal. 

11. An elementary school (Maurice Sendak)

Lots of schools have been named after authors (in fact, schools in at least 16 states have been named for Mark Twain, even though that wasn’t even his real name).  But this one particularly makes me smile. In February 2013, a new elementary school in Brooklyn (P.S. 118) was named the Maurice Sendak Community School, in honor of the author who was born in Brooklyn and died about nine months earlier. The principal commented, “We want to be a place where kids are flexible thinkers, and they step outside of the box, and Maurice Sendak was known for his creativity.” Is there a more appropriate namesake for a school than a man who celebrated Wild Things?

12. A word (George Orwell)

I might argue that this should top the list. The works of certain authors have been so influential, offering such profoundly unique perspective, that their names have become eponymous—that is, the author has became an adjective. Technically, these words weren’t “named” for the authors. Rather, they evolved from the authors’ work. Still, a handful of authors are immortalized not only in the pages of their books, but also in the dictionary. When something is Kafkaesque, it is distinguished by a “nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” A Dickensian tale is “reminiscent of the novels of Charles Dickens, especially in suggesting the poor social conditions or comically repulsive character that they portray.” And when the Ottawa Citizen recently ran a story about director Martin Scorcese and his tendency to make his movie villains likeable, the headline was: “Welcome to Scorcese’s Modern ‘Shakespearean” Masterworks.”

But I think one author eponym tops them all, and about a decade ago The New York Times felt the same way. Geoffrey Nunberg wrote, “On George Orwell's centenary—he was born on June 25, 1903—the most telling sign of his influence is the words he left us with: not just ‘thought police,’ ‘doublethink’ and ‘unperson,’ but also ‘Orwellian’ itself, the most widely used adjective derived from the name of a modern writer.” He adds that the word “brings to mind only sordid regimes of surveillance and thought control and the distortions of language that make them possible.”

13. A butterfly (Vladimir Nabokov)

There is a book called Nabokov’s Butterflies, which examines the passion for butterflies prevalent in the works of the famed author. Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly-collecting trips were an annual summer routine. In fact, he wrote Lolita while traveling throughout the western U.S. in pursuit of winged works of art. The man was seen with a butterfly net about as often as J.R.R. Tolkien was seen with a pipe. In 1948 he wrote, “I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

Nabokov also said, “A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” Indeed, he was a scientist as much as he was an author and professor of Russian literature. He published 18 scientific papers in the field of lepidoptery—and one of his hypotheses (about the evolution of a particular blue butterfly) was finally accepting as scientific fact more than three decades after his death. Indeed, he named nearly two-dozen genera, species, and subspecies of butterfly over the years. And aptly, there are seven genera and species named after him, including the Nabokovia. There’s also one called the Madeleinea lolita.

14. A frog (Charles Darwin)

Naturalist, biologist, author of the science-shaking On the Origin of Species… One of the most influential figures in human history, this prince of evolution, is also a frog. The irony, perhaps, is that the Rhinoderma darwinii, which Darwin first discovered in Chile during a voyage around the world in the 1830s, is endangered. Disease (a hyper-aggressive fungus) and tree farming leave the species barely hanging on. And here’s something else interesting about the frog named for the author of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex: the frogs are also the only vertebrates, aside from sea horses, in which the male of the species sort of gets pregnant, carrying developing sacs and getting a baby bump.

15. A bug (Patrick O’Brian)

Patrick O’Brian is best-known for his Aubrey-Maturin series, set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Daisya obriani is a species of Lesser Weevil named after O’Brian, surely because his books have a number of references to weevils board ships, including an exchange between Captain Jack Aubrey and physician Stephen Maturin in which the captain points to a pair of weevils that have crept from the crumbs and asks his friend which he would choose. Maturin chooses the one on the right because “it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.” Aubrey responds, “Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils?”

16. A service area (Walt Whitman)

Say what you want about New Jersey, but they know how to name rest areas. There are stops along I-95, the New Jersey Turnpike, named after Vince Lombardi, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, and Clara Barton. But there are also three writers in the mix—Walt Whitman, James Fenimore Cooper, and Joyce Kilmer. I suppose it’s appropriate to name a bathroom break locale after Rutgers graduate Kilmer (“I think that I shall never see… a poem lovely as a tree.”) and New Jersey native Cooper (“God planted the seeds of all trees…”). But Whitman, of course, was most famous for “Song of the Open Road” from Leaves of Grass (“…the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.”) Now you can stop at the Walt Whitman Service Area and grab a bite at a Cinnabon.

17. An e-mail program (Eudora Welty)

When Steve Dorner was in college he read a story by the great southern writer Eudora Welty called “Why I Live at the P.O.”—a tale about sibling rivalry and varied attempts at communication between family members (through radio, letters, and trips to the post office). Later, in 1990, while Steve Dorner was working for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, he created an early email program consisting of about 50,000 lines of code. When it came time to name the program, he explained it this way: “The story stuck with me. When it came time years later to name the program, I remembered the title, rearranged it a bit to 'Bringing the P.O. to where you live,' and used it for the program's motto. Then I named it Eudora.”

18. A psychedelic rock band (H.P. Lovecraft)

Although he isn’t the only author who has lent his name to a collection of musical artists, be it a brass band or a rock band or a folk singing duo, there’s something particularly appropriate about a collection of artists known as Love Craft. H.P. Lovecraft died in poverty in 1937, only later becoming famous as an American horror fiction writer. Who would have guessed that, decades later, bands like Black Sabbath and Metallica would be inspired—in song and lyrics—by his work? Or that in 1967, a Chicago psychedelic rock band would name itself H.P. Lovecraft and play haunting, eerie music inspired by his writings? They soon shortened the name to Lovecraft and eventually Love Craft.

19. A mixed drink (Ernest Hemingway)

It has been said that if you’re a movie star, you know you’ve made it if you’ve had a deli sandwich named after you. For writers? Alcohol seems to fit the bill. There are beers, for instance, named Rogue Shakespeare Stout, Oscar Wilde Mild, and Longfellow Winter Ale (not to mention Rock Bottom Catcher in the Rye, the Hops of Wrath, and Brave New Wheat). But writers can be complicated, so maybe a mixed drink is most appropriate.

It hasn’t come close to reaching the cultural mainstream like some nonalcoholic fare has—a Shirley Temple or Roy Rogers or Arnold Palmer—but you can order a Jack Kerouac. That’s a drink comprised of tequila, rum, and orange juice over ice. A Graham Greene? It’s a martini made of gin, dry vermouth, and a dash of crème de cassis. But I think I’d probably order a Hemingway-inspired cocktail, if only because Hemingway really loved his cocktails. (There’s even a whole book about it: To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion.) The Hemingway Daiquiri, invented in Havana in 1921, includes 1 ½ ounces of white rum, ¼ ounce of maraschino liqueur, ½ ounce of grapefruit juice, ¾ ounce of lime juice, and ¾ ounces of simply syrup. Pour it into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Drink until the sun also rises.

20. A tavern (Edgar Allen Poe)

No, it’s not all that unusual to find a drinking establishment named for an author. There’s a pub in Croatia called Tolkien’s House, for instance, and there’s a Jack London Saloon in northern California. But a couple of places called Poe’s Tavern do a particularly fine job of combining the ghoulish and the gastronomical. One of the taverns is on South Carolina’s Sullivan Island, where Poe was stationed while in the army. A few years ago, the owners opened another version in Atlantic Beach, Florida. Not only does the décor evoke 19th-century America, but the dining is room is festooned with Poe memorabilia, including a large portrait of the author painted on a brick wall. And the menu offers a nod to the master of the macabre, including a cheese sandwich called Gold Bug, a bacon-and-cheese combo called Pit & Pendulum, and the fried egg-bacon-and-cheese Tell-Tale Heart.

21. An entree (Charles Dickens)

Charles Ranhofer, the chef at the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City for more than three decades in the late 19th century and the author of the 1,000-page encyclopedic cookbook The Epicurean, had a talent for naming dishes after famous people, including literary lions. There was the bisque of shrimps la Melville… and chicken saut George Sand… and lobster cutlets la Shelley… and salad la Dumas. After Charles Dickens made a visit to New York in 1867, Ranhofer named two dishes after the author of Oliver Twist—beet fritters a la Dickens and veal pie a la Dickens. “Please, sir, I want some more.”

22. A Cannabis strain (Jack Herer)

Jack Herer was a Cannabis decriminalization activist and the author of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, a book (published in 1985) about the Cannabis plant and its numerous uses. In it, he offered $100,000 to anyone who could disprove the following statement:

“If all fossil fuels and their derivatives, as well as trees for paper and construction were banned in order to save the planet, reverse the Greenhouse Effect and stop deforestation; then there is only one known annually renewable natural resource that is capable of providing the overall majority of the world's paper and textiles; meet all of the world's transportation, industrial and home energy needs, while simultaneously reducing pollution, rebuilding the soil, and cleaning the atmosphere all at the same time... and that substance is… Cannabis Hemp... Marijuana!”

About a decade later, somebody created a new strain of Cannabis. It’s a cross between strains that seem to have use-appropriate names—Skunk #1, Haze, and Northern Lights. And it’s called Jack Herer.


When I think of opening lines of novels, I tend to think of Snoopy. I picture him, as Charles Schulz so often did, sitting atop his doghouse, typewriter before him, aching to retrieve a second sentence from the recesses of his precocious canine brain. All he can come up with is the hoariest of clichés: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Those seven words—often mocked, occasionally with a wink (Madeleine L’Engle used the line as a starter for A Wrinkle in Time)—are considered the purplest of purple prose. Writer’s Digest once described the line as “the literary poster child for bad story starters.” Or not. The American Book Review once chose it as one of the best first lines from novels. Beautiful writing is in the eye of the beholder.

The opening line of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford actually was this: 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.

Not bad really. But then, I don’t always agree with historical literary consensus. Take Charles Dickens, for instance. The protracted first sentence to his 1859 classic A Tale of Two Cities is considered among the iconic openers: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Me? I think that’s a bunch of overwritten nonsense. The epoch of incredulity? Really?

Alas, you won’t find that one on the following list, the Why Not 100 ranking of the 94 finest openers in fiction. There are actually a couple offerings from Dickens, just not that one…

1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984 by George Orwell)

2. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)


If a journey through a great children’s book is a bit like being a kid in a candy store, then what about a great children’s book filled with magical and mysterious candy? Every Flavor Beans, Everlasting Gobstoppers, Peak Performance Gum… an embarrassment of sugar-filled riches. Of course, some are more magical than others, some more mysterious, some more appealing. So (since Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published 50 years ago this month) we at the Why Not 100 have taken it upon ourselves to rank a bunch of them—from the very best to the very worst (you can decide where that line is drawn).

After all… why not?

You’ll notice, of course, the list is almost entirely dominated by the creations of three authors. That’s because Brandon Mull’s Candy Shop Wars, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Roald Dahl’s delicious masterpiece are brimming with the best magical treats. And maybe some of your favorite, sweetest books didn’t make the list. But like candy, every ranking is inherently a preference. This is ours, starting with what we believe is the ultimate in confectionary wonder:

1. Wonka Bar (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl)

Yes, it’s really just a candy bar. But the notion of five of them—among the millions sold—containing a Golden Ticket that promises entrée into a “world of pure imagination,” not to mention a lifetime supply of chocolate… can you really beat that?

2. Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans (Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)

“A Risk With Every Mouthful!” So goes the advertisement for perhaps the most famous sweet in the wizarding world. It’s the risk that appeals—certainly not the taste. Sure, you can find chocolate or peppermint or coconut or strawberry. But you can also find sardine or liver or ear wax or vomit. Buyer beware.

3. Brain Feed (The Candy Shop War)

Not for human consumption. But if you feed some to an animal, the beast temporarily gains human intelligence, including the power of speech and memory. Dr. Dolittle meets the Candy Man.


Fifty years ago—on February 9, 1964—John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The Beatles are to songwriting what Shakespeare is to playwriting. Second place (sorry, Rolling Stones and Eugene O’Neill) is far behind. But the Why Not 100 is a blog about books. So I wondered: How can I inject my Beatlemania into an eclectic look at literature? Easy, actually. I’ve found 64 Beatles songs that can be found as book titles.

And I didn’t even use When I’m Sixty-Four: The Plot Against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them.

You see, I gave myself some rules. First, no books about the Beatles themselves. Among those options are titles like Strawberry Fields Forever, Love Me Do, You Never Give Me Your Money, The Ballad of John and Yoko, Can’t Buy Me Love, Carry That Weight, Fixing a Hole, Please Please Me, Eight Days a Week, A Hard Day’s Night, Glass Onion, and I Me Mine. I also decided not to include illustrated song lyrics like Octopus’s Garden and Yellow Submarine.

Second, no nonfiction. As much as I love the genre, I wanted to keep it to novels—and the occasional short story collection, comic book tale, or picture book. As you can imagine, there are a whole bunch of marital self-help books called We Can Work It Out. And a few inspiring true-life tales called With a Little Help From my Friends. I could go on. In fact, I will:


We at Why Not Books named our company after a statement of possibility, a call to conjecture, a challenge to the accepted order of things. We named it after skewed perspectives and a belief that the infinite is attainable. We named it after our favorite description of imagination, a George Bernard Shaw quotation: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why.’ I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?’” RFK borrowed the line for a speech while running for president. Before repeating Shaw’s quote, he said, “I don’t think we have to accept the situation, as we have it at the moment. I think that we can do better, and I think the American people think that we can do better.”

So do we. So we call ourselves Why Not Books.

And here we offer our 92 favorite perspectives on the power of imagination:

1. “You see things and say ‘Why.’ I dream things that never were and I say, ‘Why not?’” – George Bernard Shaw

2. “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” ― G.K. Chesterton

3. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein

4. “Imagination is the voice of daring.”― Henry Miller

Sunday, January 26, 2014


We at Why Not Books try to tell it like it is. So Francis and Eddie is, indeed, a picture book about the amazing true story of amateur golfer Francis Ouimet and his 10-year-old caddie Eddie Lowery. And Dragon Valley is, yes, a chapter book for kids—written by a precocious kid—about talking dragons and the valley they call home. And My Mantelpiece, the memoirs of civil rights icon Carolyn Goodman… well, sometimes titles are a bit more cryptic.

Then again, there’s always a more straightforward title. And while you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, that doesn’t stop people from passing judgment. So a fellow named Dan Wilbur, author of How Not To Read, created a brilliant blog in which he asked folks to re-title classic books, based on tongue-in-cheek truth in advertising.

From hundreds of submissions of tongue-in-cheek tomes, we’ve ranked the 100 best:

1. Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak) – Skipping Dinner is Like Dropping Acid

2. Brokeback Mountain (Annie Proulx) – The Hills Have Guys

3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Eric Carle) – Eat Until You Feel Pretty

4. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) – Diary of a Wimpy Kid

5. Oedipus the King (Sophocles) – How I Met Your Mother

6. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) – My Dad is Cooler than Your Dad

7. The Devil Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger) – The Satanic Purses

8. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) – A Zombie Learns French