I’ve been resisting the meme that’s been going around, even though it appeals to my book fetish, but the variation at Incoming Signals intrigues me enough to go along.

The rules for 23/5 Exquisite Corpse, again, are:
          Take the nearest six to ten books from your shelf.
          Open them to page 23, and find the fifth sentence.
          Write down those sentences and arrange them to form a short story.
          Post the text in your journal along with these instructions.

So here goes:

He was revealing the basic mysteries of his craft, and was happy, making the while the broad series of stock pleasantries which have probably been current in composing rooms since printing was invented.1
He paused to enhance the dramatic effect of what he was about to say.2
What is the easiest thing?3
“Nothing to find out,” he cut in.4
Then he ceased struggling and pleaded with them to stop.5
They seemed very angry, so I thought I had better go.6
Above these the ever-present birds of prey, the vultures, ravens and kites, weave slow and intricate patterns upon the hard blue sky.7

1Betty Binns, Better Type
2Marcel Möring, In Babylon
3John Florio, in Burton Stevenson, The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases
4William Tenn, “Bernie the Faust,” in Judith Merrill (ed.), The 9th Annual of the Year’s Best SF
5Alan Furst, Night Soldiers
6Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem
7Gavin Maxwell, Lords of the Atlas

Addendum. I just found a great one at Eve’s Swamp, and I thought I’d reprint it here for everyone’s delectation; visit Eve for the sources:

I didn’t know that I was adopted, so I don’t know why I gave my clothes away, but I did. But the new sciences would point the way toward the fundamental nature of life and mind, mysteries that the physical sciences had never been able to touch. The waterspout did a big dance over the sea, leaning and twirling and the whale whirled in its coils, with corks and bottles, high up over the sea. After short silence then and summons read, the great consult began. “Boys,” said the Colonel, after a moment’s reflection, “I’m not sure what I’m getting into, but Hobson will be out of your tent today. We don’t have to establish his ‘character.’ But you will be my equal if you tame the haughty Moor and our fierce Scythian foe: Love binds us in a fellowship of woe.” Case felt the weight of the night come down on him like a bag of wet sand settling behind his eyes. Several times he seemed to shrink up within himself at the noise of the American Press on the terrace above—the terrace which was popularly believed to be safer from hand-grenades.


  1. Sam Random says

    My choice of shelves was rather unfortunate. Make a story out of these, I defy you:
    (1) Compare: not only was the photon emitted and did it go to the left, but (it was then true that): if it were emitted it would go to the left.
    (2) Levin listened no longer but sat waiting for the professor to go.
    (3) Insisting that English be univocally proclaimed either “Germanic” or “Romance” (in which case the former always won, according to the official pundits) struck me as dogmatic and rigidly category-bound.
    (4) The Australian people do not directly elect the government but rather vote to choose Members of Parliament.
    (5) Of double worstede was his semicope, and rounded as a belle out of the presse.
    (6) The girl squealed with delight at the slimy thing and glanced shyly up at Isaac.
    In order:
    Robert Nozick, “Knowledge and Skepticism” from Steven Luper-Foy (ed.) The Possibility of Knowledge
    Leo Tolstoy (the Maude translation, revised by George Gibian), Anna Karenina
    Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language
    John Summers, “Parliament and Responsible Government”, from (assorted editors) Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia
    Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales”, from the Norton Anthology of Poetry 4th ed.
    China Miéville, Perdido Street Station.

  2. Hmmm. I have a problem, too.
    O heaven be judge how I love Valentine, whose life’s as tender to me as my soul. (The Complete Works of William Shakespeare – The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
    Much of that which, in the Cumbrian high country, is advanced as solid historical fact evaporates, cloud-like, upon close scrutiny into unsubstantial legend. (Cumberland Heritage – Molly Lefebure)
    I’d been born in England, and I’d always felt completely English. (The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten – John Terraine)
    In almost all, it was emphasized that I’d sought death all my life. (By-line – Ernest Hemingway)
    He was a man of passionate beliefs, and had a veneration for Mahatma Gandhi. (Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful – Alan Paton)
    This consisted of a burlesque, set in Dickens’s time, of a eagle carrying off the squire’s daughter to its eyrie on a vast cliff overlooking the village, where the annual fair was in progress. (As The Falcon Her Bells – Philip Glasier).
    Well, it’s done something for me. Weekend job – must sort out my bookshelves.

  3. I’m at work, so it’s a strange combo of training materials, reference books, and some genre fiction that I loaned out, got back, and forgot to take home. Actually, if I could make the pronouns agree in person and number, I might have something.
    The world we lived in was wide, and most of it was open to us. Divest; free. They are an integral part of the user interface. A mechanical or electrical device, either manual or automatic, that operates electrical contacts to bring about signal transmission. It will include an overview of a typical lesson, introduce the educational taxonomy that serves as the foundation for Chapters 3-7, and describe the rationale for the text formats to be presented.
    Beth went out to get the newspapers after the police had come and gone.
    References on request.

  4. “He was revealing the basic mysteries of his craft, and was happy, making the while the broad series of stock pleasantries which have probably been current in composing rooms since printing was invented.”
    Betty Binns, _Better Type_, is of course quoting _Clayhanger_ by Arnold Bennett. How delighted I was when I first happened upon the source, in context, for the paragraph she sets into about 200 types of type in the course of her book. (Which paragraph is, itself, about an apprentice’s first lesson in setting type.)

  5. Good game!
    When I got as far as my third book, I felt that it completed my cadaver very nicely. It’s shorter than suggested and more of an invocation than a short story, really, so I hope that it still counts. I like it anyway:
    The valley of the Alacantara is an area famous for its fruitfulness.
    The scale is certainly grand.
    Taste it for me.

    Sources and explanations in my blog entry: I didn’t want to clog up your comment box!!!

  6. I agree — that’s a perfect short-short. Rules are made to be broken!

  7. Yes, the only reason I stipulated six to ten sentences is that I thought it would make it easier to find ones that seemed to connect. Yours is great just as it is.

  8. mine is a mess – 4 books on linguistics and classroom practice and a Dr. Seuss book.

  9. ————————-
    He noticed the burning gaze which the old man directed at his Cross. (1) The word Sums was written on the headline. (2) Die Kleinen sahen mich in einiger Entfernung so von der Seite an, und ich ging auf das Jüngste los, das ein Kind von der glücklichsten Gesichtsbildung war. (3)
    „Zoltan,“ sagte ich. (4) “So wir aus uns handeln, brauchen wir das natürliche Licht nicht.” (5)
    At the commencement, and throughout, the respiration was slow and large; there was a constant throbbing in the hypochondrium; his age was about twenty. (6) He’d joined up because, these days, joining the Watch was quite a good choice of career. (7)
    1. Stendhal, “The Red and the Black”
    2. James Joyce, „Ulysses.“
    3. J. W. Goethe, „Die Leiden des jungen Werther.“
    4. Ronald Reng, „Mein Leben als Engländer.“
    5. Philippus Theophrastus Paracelsus, „Astronomia Magna oder die ganze Philosophia sagax der großen und kleinen Welt.“
    6. “Source Book of Medical History,”compiled with Notes by Logan Clendening
    7. Terry Pratchett, „Nightwatch“.

  10. I’m sitting in front of a bookcase almost totally full of dictionaries and I will only list the six nearest books:
    The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations
    Russwurm/Schoeller: Rechtswörterbuch (small Austrian law dictionary)
    Wie sagt man in der Schweiz? (dictionary of Swiss German)
    Kirchner/Butz: Abkürzungsverzeichnis der Rechtssprache (Abbreviations in legal German)
    Österreichisches Wörterbuch (standard monolingual German dictionary in Austria)
    Wie sagt man in Österreich? (dictionary of Austrian German)
    I can’t imagine that would produce a very meaningful text.

  11. Blinger: Personally, I think “Icabod is itchy so am I” makes the whole thing work. Without it, the story would be… well, a little dry. (Direct link.)
    Anna: Yours has the strange yet undeniable coherence that is surely the mystical point of the exercise. All praise to the Exquisite Corpse!
    MM: It probably goes without saying that I have a lot of dictionaries near me as well; I excluded them on the grounds that they did not primarily consist of sentences and thus were hors de combat.

  12. **blush**
    thank you kindly. i was pretty lucky, as far as specialized literature goes – i have a ton of medical history materials, but they are relatively far away. i did however decide to exclude some russian. i hate writing in translit.

  13. I thought at first that I couldn’t make a reasonable choice of shelf, but counting leftward from the shelf-end directly to my left as I sit here, and at eye level, gives a rather interesting section from Dewey 420 to 321. It doesn’t read like any kind of story, but it could be an excerpt from an academic text of some sort.

    Determining the “underlying” or “basic” form of a morpheme is important for developing a writing system and for glossing texts, but it is not a major theoretical issue that need occupy a great deal of space in a grammar sketch or reference grammar.
    Nobody ever really believed that Paris was the true son of Agelaus. His face was blackened by a thin film of metallic dust or smoke, but the big red scar stretching across his cheek stood out nonetheless.
    “Give us back fire,” they begged. They did not employ the construction “methinks,” for instance.
    His talents appear both in a technical understanding of software and computers and in his ability to create and maintain an enormously profitable business. It has agglomerated population, centralized means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. For example: car batteries to service stations, coat hangers to dry cleaners, Styrofoam pellets to gift or pottery shops, and egg cartons or other materials to schools for art projects.
    Nearly all cases were tried before panels of jurors drawn by a system of lot and election from the citizen body; and before these panels the magistrates could be tried for any irregularities committed during their year of office. The worst policy is to attack cities.

    The texts, in order of use, were
    Describing Morphosyntax (Payne)
    The Kingfisher Book of Myths and Legends (Horowitz)
    The Gulag Archipelago (Solzhenytsin)
    Native American Stories (Bruchac)
    Made in America (Bryson)
    Microsoft Secrets (Cusumano)
    The Communist Manifesto (Marx)
    The Recycler’s Handbook
    The Republic (from the introduction by the translator, Lee)
    The Art of War (Sun Tzu; commentary by General Tao Hanzhang)

  14. Note: I meant Solzhenitsyn, of course.

  15. 1The New Testament, then, reveals Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises and the one who heals the broken relationship between God and man. 2Prepositional phrases show up throughout our sentences, sometimes as part of a noun phrase and sometimes as a modifier of the verb. 3The old troublesome questions and longings, hopes and fears, are seen to be part of the nature, not part only of the delusions and superstitions, of man. 4I say, isn’t that the armour you wore in the great tournament in the Lone Islands? 5The Fox was so trusted by now that when my father did not need him he was allowed to take us anywhere, even miles from the palace. 6I see that all right.
    1The Journey from Texts to Translations by Paul D. Wegner
    2Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk
    3Studies of the Mind and Art of Robert Browning by James Fotheringham
    4Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis (I randomly chose one from the set)
    5Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
    6Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
    Interesting. Sorry for all the Lewis books. They’re still on my shelf from a class on Lewis that I took last semester. 🙂

  16. Milhouse, Principal Skinner, Grampa, Jasper.1 At intervals during the last day I took cool fresh water down to him and at such times as he found the strength to get to his feet he would stand with head in the pail and snuffle his snout around.2 These social fixations keep changing, like a fan turning in front of a light, and the changing inspires the belief that posterity eventually discovers the whole truth about art.3
    Something very different was the meaning a hundred or a thousand years ago, and between the two is a great gap, which the memory and the linguistic consciousness of the modern speaker does not span.4 Reading your words out loud is scary, and many people invariably mumble or read too softly or too fast.5 So they do, and the skraelings shot at them for a while, and then flee away as fast as they could, each a different way.6
    His spelling of the word is deliberate.7
    Warum wollte sie werden wie die Männer.8 But for all that her little face had a restless charm of its own: the eyes were very large and dark grey, but the whites were as blue as a little child’s, and they lay in deep shadow beneath the straight black lines of her brows and her full, white eyelids; the mouth was narrow, but the lips were red as berries—and with her bright pink and white complexion Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter was fair now in her young girlhood.9 I dare say, Glaucon, that you are as much charmed by her as I am, especially when she appears in Homer?10
    1Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, I Can’t Believe it’s an Unofficial Simpsons Guide
    2EB White, Essays of EB White
    3Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays
    4Jame Greenough and George Lyman Kittredge, “Words and Their Ways”, quoted in Lewis Thomas Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a word-watcher
    5Peter Elbow, Writing with Power
    6The Greenlanders’ Saga, trans. George Johnston
    7Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World
    8Christa Wolf, Kassandra
    9Sigrid Undset, The Master of Hestviken
    10Plato, From “The Republic”, Book X (Trans. B. Jowett), in JH Smith and EW Parks (ed.) The Great Critics: An Anthology of Literary Criticism
    My masterpiece 🙂 Also, I note superscript does not work in comments. Fooey.

  17. Gave it a whirl:
    David and Victoria- By Mike
    In short, the law is the principal means whereby human activity is prohibited, permitted or required, and the state and the law are intimately enmeshed in the creation of the modern social order.
    I have returned to the marital bed and David and I have had sex, just because we’re lying there and next to each other. Devious, hardboiled,
    fast on his feet, he’s a tough man to beat. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal.
    She looked up at me from her desk, her eyes authoritatively searching mine, which were hidden behind the thick lenses like tiny crabs in a rock pool. Really beautiful woman hardly ever use this trick, preferring to stick to
    their own kind. My petty antics are legendary in the circle of Victoria’s friends.
    *Details at blog*

  18. aldiboronti says

    The disarray of my bookshelves lends itself well to such games of randomness, so here goes.
    In the first, European traders and coastal Algonkians exchanged manufactured goods for wampum.
    And what’s the point of all this egg-laying or seed-sowing or world-building?
    No, it is the Grandees, the Junto-men, the Hocas-Pocasses, the state-Mountebanks, with their Zanyes and Jack-puddings, Committee-men, Sequestrators, Treasurers and Agitators under them that are here historified.
    They were were more than brothers, they were like lovers, thought Bugsy Siegel.
    If this is all they have to say, some heads are now upon the City gates that said as much.
    From, in order
    1. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 Burrows & Wallace
    2. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett
    3. The Compleat History of Independency upon the Parliament, Begun 1640 Clem. Walker 1661
    4. The Money and The Power: The Making of Las Vegas Denton & Morris
    5. The Holy Cheat, Proving from the Undeniable Practices and Positions of the Presbyterians, that the Design of that Party is to enslave both King and Kingdom, under the Masque of Religion prob. Roger L’Estrange ca 1670s
    Good game!

  19. But why page 23? Hmmm? Hmmm?
    Glad to see Perdido Street Station get a guernsey among a heap of (undoubtedly very worthy) academic stuff.

  20. Those are some great sentences, aldi, especially #2, 3, and 5. Makes me want to read the books.

  21. Who’d have thought the ‘language’ in Languagehat referred to english only. Here’s my attempt at post-modern multilingual poetry:
    In seiner Schlankheit sammelt sich das Swache,
    Pour lui je tremble pour lui je prie
    ‘n spirituele stilte as uit vaste aarde kom -teirra longsil, teirra trá
    och färdiga att dö
    -Rainer Maria Rilke, Wie soll ich meine Seele halten
    -Jacques Brel, Tout Brel
    -Breyten Breytenbach, Eklips
    -J.H.O.Djurhuus, Yrkingar 1898-1948
    -Edith Södergran

  22. Okay, here’s mine. (It definitely works better with bookshelves not organized according to subject.)
    Ormisda, Prince of Persia
    When Ormisda [Prince of Persia, traveling with Constantius] was asked directly what he thought of Rome, he said that he took comfort in the fact alone, that he had learned that even these men were mortal. He saw the 1906 Salon d’Automne, which he described to his mother as “for the most part very bad,” although “much more liberal in its aims than the shows at home.”
    He adds a phrase from Tacitus to the effect that art borders directly on deception, “breve confinium artis et falsi.” For example, even the lament within Theocritus’s “First Idyl,” the poem commonly regarded as initiating the genre, has, we are told, been sung by Thyrsis on earlier occasions. The entire study of the nature of artistic form is the province of the aesthetician; it is too large a question for us to deal with extensively here.
    But he did not choose. How could an American view life in London or Paris?
    And the sources are:
    – Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture
    – Gail Levin, Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist
    – Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century
    – Peter Sacks, The English Elegy
    – David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction
    A Bloomsbury Group Reader, ed. S. P. Rosenbaum
    – Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies

  23. Very nice!
    And William, if you’ll visit the Caterina thread linked above (at the word “meme”), you’ll find that my first dip into these waters produced a sentence in Russian (and quite a striking one it was too: Raza dva na etikh vecherinkakh poprekrasnodushestvovali v pochti polnom semeinom sostave i my).

  24. Nathaniel: lol @ the skraelings shooting someone for reading too fast then fleeing…
    language hat: good grief! “poprekrasnodushestvovali”?? wow. this has to be the coolest russian word i’ve seen since my brother told me a gag about “zamkom po morde” – zamestitel’ komanduyuschego po morskim delam.

  25. cf. Walter Abish’s 99: The New Meaning.

  26. Languagehat: Fair enough -although that would make it bilingual rather than multilingual, wouldn’t it?
    Anyway, loving this thread. Someone should dedicate a website to it.
    Someone probably already has…

  27. These are fifth complete sentences (or poetic lines) on page 23 of books I’ve had to box up because of major repairs/painting at my place:
    1- The waitresses dressed in pajamas and served free Sunday breakfast to customers who could get up before noon.
    2- She was a Nimph, the meadowes knew none such
    3- Was she trying, by any chance, to glimpse the time on his wrist watch?
    4- Cortar en sopitas los sopakos (pan de sopa) y picar muy bien los ajos.
    5- It was therefore assumed that the males of these species must have cooperated in the hunt.
    In order:
    1 – James Gavin, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret
    2 – The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw, ed. George Walton Williams
    3 – Giorgio Bassani, “The Smell of Hay”
    4 – Recetas de 200 Cocineros de Sociedades Vascas, ed. Jose Castillo
    5- Food: A Culinary History, ed. Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari

  28. Enjoyed it thoroughly. Here’s mine.
    Their languages had not been written down. She might never have heard of love, sacrifice. The needs list is initially generated in house. “Que?” replied Scott wittily. A growing body of research has found significant associations between a range of social and cultural factors, and the risk for disease and death. They place themselves in the center. I’m away to the sea, back on alert against enemy raiders. Something easy like “Pardaillan” or “Fausta” by Michel Zevaco.

  29. During the time between ending one project and beginning another, I always have a crisis of meaning. Pardon me if I doubt whether you will ever produce a great poet from your choirs . . . or a great philosopher, or a great scholar. The cygnet finds the water; but the man is born in ignorance of his element, and feels out blind at first, disorganised by sin i’ the blood, — his spirit-insight dulled and crossed by his sensations. First, this myth of genesis involves an important separation between reading (in the ordinary sense) and writing. [*]The system of language displays itself as a theater of verbal and literal figures. The meanings and effects of any single image are always adjacent to this overloaded and plural sensory environment and to the observer who inhabited it.
    sources at:

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