Why Would I Even Bother Writing Titles Anymore


When I was a senior in high school, I opted to take an elective called “Novels.”

Novels was the god of all blow-off classes—the class every other blow-off period would strive to be if they weren’t all such slackers. It was quite literally an hour and a half at the end of the day set aside for reading. We could choose any book we wanted off a long list of popular novels, spend as long as we cared to reading it, and then move on to the next at our leisure.

We weren’t even tested on them, or required to write reflective essays. We just had to “conference” for ten minutes with the woman who called herself our teacher but spent every afternoon holed up in her dim office wearing sunglasses, complaining of a light sensitivity.

The “conferences” went like this:

Teacher: So, you read Little Women.

Student: Yes.

Teacher: So, what are your plans after graduation?

Student: Like, college.

Teacher: You should go to Prague instead.

Student: OK?

Teacher: When I graduated, I went straight to Prague.

Student: …

It was during the course of this class, Novels, that I discovered Edith Wharton for the very first time. Just one page of The Age of Innocence later, and I was a goner. My friends and I were truant for a lot of Novels as the semester dragged on, but that book kept me in my seat for days at a time. I had never read anything quite like it, in all its wrenching irony, devastating romance, and exquisite disdain.

In college, I read The House of Mirth for an American Literature course (the legitimate kind, this time) and fell in love with Wharton once more, for exactly the same reasons. I look forward to finding her again and again over the years to rekindle our passionate affair. And when an opportunity came up, in the form of a Headstuff assignment, to investigate the lives and legacies of world-famous writers, I immediately chose Mark Twain and Edith Wharton herself.

Wharton seems, at least by my impression, to be one of those names everyone has heard but doesn’t know anything about. This, of course, is exactly why I chose her. I was not disappointed or bored for a second in my research on her life and writing—but with both articles behind me now, I can say with all certainty that biographies are not my calling. I take pride in milking tedious material and churning out entertaining results, but biography has left me coming up empty.

Maybe it just can’t be done? I’ll have to read Bill Bryson’s biography of Shakespeare and find out.

Anyway. Remember when I frantically wrote my Mark Twain piece in firework bursts of panic, and Headstuff casually rejected the title? I managed to be microscopically offended, even though they simply wanted to keep the titles consistent across the series (“The Open Book”).

Well, this time around, I didn’t even supply the outstanding and click-worthy title I had come up with—”Edith Wharton: Accomplished Writer, Comprehensive Badass,” it went—to save myself another infinitesimal agony. AND THEN THEY GAVE IT A DIFFERENT, NON-SERIES TITLE ANYWAY—something standard and competent that Edith Wharton would have liked.

The very nerve.

I’m OK, though. I’m coping. I’m even considering a trip to Prague.

It is, after all, long overdue.

Mark Twain Would Laugh It Off… So I Guess I Will, Too

A few weeks back, I almost committed all of the Seven Deadly Writer Sins.

What are those, you ask ever so politely? Well, I took the time to write up the entire list in detail:

  1. Missing a deadline.
  2. Missing a deadline.
  3. Missing a deadline.
  4. Missing a deadline.
  5. Missing a deadline.
  6. Missing a deadline.
  7. Gluttony.

Guys, I almost missed a deadline. And then I almost ate all the cheese in my refrigerator as a snack punishment.

It was even possibly sort of totally my fault. If it was my fault, I simply wrote down the wrong date (very unlike me, but apparently it maybe happens?). If it wasn’t, then someone is conspiring against me in secret by altering dates in a shared Google spreadsheet just to imagine my suffering (not cool, but also not likely).

In any case, I had 24 hours’ notice that my Mark Twain piece was going to go live on Headstuff. And all I’d prepared was an introduction, a smattering of illegible notes scribbled in a palm-sized writer’s pad, and a title they didn’t even end up using.

I did what any sane person would do: ignored the pile of work waiting in my inbox, typed furiously for half the day (pausing only to screech into the next room that the music was too loud), and then debated whether to eat a buffet of cheese.

But I finished, fueled by panic and old iced tea. I may not have done Mark Twain justice, but I was never going to, was I? Sometimes the perfectionist in me needs to move aside so the she-demon I call The Salem Bitch Troll can step up to the pyre and set herself ablaze.

This is a long preface to a short and depressing, bald and divorced reality: I could have done better. What with the time constraints, and the panic, and all, I veered toward the safe and easy territory of “Standard-Mark-Twain-Bio-Insert-Stock-Image-of-Mississippi-River-Here.” In other words, I put a chicken in the oven, but I didn’t season it. I tossed some paprika on top just before the timer went off, but I knew it wouldn’t make much of a difference. And then, as soon as I washed down that dry, lukewarm chicken with a zesty glass of relief, it turned to solid, spiky guilt in the pit of my stomach.

I didn’t tell any of the funniest anecdotes from my tour of The Mark Twain House & Museum. I didn’t tell the one about how, in Venice, he and his wife were swindled into overpaying for a dark walnut bed frame, complete with creepy cherubim carved into the headboard—and how he insisted on sleeping backwards (at the foot of the bed) so he could get his money’s worth from the view. I didn’t tell the one about how his daughters would often remove the angels from the headboard to bathe and dress them up like dolls. I didn’t tell the one about how he used to narrate stories in the library every evening based on objects from the mantelpiece; the objects remained the same each night, but his stories always differed.


I even managed to screw up this photo. His house had a roof, I swear.

I didn’t mention that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is loosely based on Twain’s boyhood, or that one of Twain’s most quoted lines—”I am not an American; I am the American”—should, in fact, be attributed to his friend Frank Fuller. I also forgot to include Helen Keller’s first impression of him:

He has his own way of thinking, saying, and doing everything. I feel the twinkle of his eye in his handshake. . . . He makes you feel that his heart is a tender Iliad of human sympathy.

So yeah, I suck forever and ever, and there’s just no forgiving myself. (Or, rather, the person who conspired against me. That brilliant bastard.)

All I can do now, I suppose, is get a six-week head start on my Edith Wharton article for the same literary series over at Headstuff. Twain might have a sense of humor about all this, and high-five me in the afterlife, but Wharton—the first woman to win the Pulitzer, and a comprehensive badass—could probably liquefy my entire being just by pursing her lips.

Let’s not find out, shall we?

Mark Twain Teaser

At the end of May, I used a free weekend (what am I saying, I’m free every weekend) as an excuse to take the Peter Pan bus up to Hartford, Connecticut, and visit the Mark Twain House & Museum.

As a Twain enthusiast and, finally, houseguest, I volunteered to write up a gushing Twain profile for Headstuff’s new literary series. But until then, here’s a preview of the delights in store—in the form of, obviously, fun facts:

  • He lived right next door to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was much more famous than him in the 19th century. (I’ll write more about her another time—I visited her house, too!)
  • He worked as a typesetter, a riverboat pilot, and a miner before settling down to write books.
  • He proposed to his eventual wife, Olivia Langdon, in 1868. A coal heiress far, far wealthier than Twain, she (and her family) took some convincing.
  • He was a prolific smoker, often finishing off 25-40 cigars per day.
  • He was anti-imperialist, anti-slavery, critical of organized religion, and an active supporter of women’s suffrage—to name just a few of his convictions.
  • He had a lifelong obsession with Joan of Arc, going on to write a book about her in 1896.

Learning about him has spurred me on to finish The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, just so I can fill my TBR pile with his writing. I think I’ll start with The Innocents Abroad—a travel narrative mocking his fellow tourists. Or maybe I’ll just squeeze that into my next free weekend (a.k.a. this weekend).



#4 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

Cover of "The Adventures of Huckleberry F...

Let’s kick off The 100 Greatest Books Challenge with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Shenanigans Culminating in a Lesson on Morality. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it, but I know it’s never been by choice. That’s how famous—and how frequently assigned—this 1885 novel is.

It’s rough going, here and there—I wouldn’t pretend otherwise. Something about the zigzagging plot and recurring dialect has always bankrupted my patience. But the heart of its message and its main characters is too close to my own to ignore. So even as the ADD plot inflicts repeated whiplash, I still enjoy the ride.

Every. Single. Time.

Mark Twain’s literary legacy—a masterful combination of irony and social criticism—remains alive and well, despite his preposterous mustache. He had a zero tolerance policy for racism and stupidity—and you can’t be that witty in life or in print without making a few (million) fans. If you’re among them, consider taking a Huck Finn-themed riverboat ride on the Mississippi. Because, yes, that exists in our absurdly awesome world.

This is a book that will make you weep weepy tears… whenever you manage to follow along. A triumph of critical thinking over society’s chronic brainlessness, Huckleberry Finn is best known as the quintessential bildungsroman.

Whatever that is.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?


Favorite Quotes:

Jim said that bees won’t sting idiots, but I didn’t believe that, because I tried them lots of times myself and they wouldn’t sting me.

If you tell the truth you do not need a good memory!

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.

Read: 2003, 2005, 2007, and so on