Posts by Dr. Boli


In a dank and dreary prison in Poland, two men are waiting. They have nothing to do but wait. In three days they will be executed. The time for hope is long past; no riders will come from the king with a sudden reprieve; no appeal will reverse their sentences.

Then a key turns in the lock. Slowly the massive door creaks open, and in the blinding light is the silhouette of the consul of the city.

“All right, men,” he says. “There’s a basilisk in an old cellar, and it needs to come out. In exchange for a full pardon, who wants to put on the mirror suit and go down after it?”

One of the men volunteers.

The basilisk or cockatrice (the two terms had become synonymous by the 1600s) was a known fact of natural history, and now you can be well informed on all matters to do with basilisks, because Dr. Boli has taken the trouble to transcribe a learned treatise on the subject by George Caspard Kirchmayer, one of those wonderful old naturalists who studied all of nature without setting foot in the grubby outdoors. “To deny the existence of the basilisk is to carp at the evidence of men’s eyes and their experiences in many different places,” says Kirchmayer. However, he is not such a fool as to believe in those old wives’ tales about its killing men with a glance. No silly mirror suits for him. They wouldn’t do him a bit of good: the basilisk could kill him with its breath.

This translation of Kirchmeyer’s learned treatise is by Edmund Goldsmid, a Scottish bibliophile who published a number of translations of old Latin treatises in very limited editions. Unfortunately he died young; otherwise he might have left us English versions of much more of that “lost continent of literature,” as James Hankins called the neo-Latin world. Mr. Goldsmid’s notes are worth reading in themselves: they introduce us to many of the other characters in the scholarship of the 1500s and 1600s. It is remarkable how many of them died of stubbornness. “Having convinced himself that one could not catch the plague at 60 years of age, he took no precautions, and died of that disease in 1596.” “Cardanus…starved himself to death in 1576, to accomplish his own prophecy that he would not live beyond the age of seventy-five.”

You can read Kirchmayer on Basilisks at the Argosy of Pure Delight, where we present it in mobile-friendly and Web-friendly form. You can also see the original page images of Edmund Gosmid’s translation in the Internet Archive; you may notice that, in his transcription, Dr. Boli has silently corrected a number of printing errors in Goldsmid’s edition—and doubtless introduced some new ones, because that always happens.


Sir: I asked for a cup of tea at the coffeehouse around the corner, not the one where they have the mimes, but the other one, and they handed me a foam cup with a teabag in it, and the teabag had a tag dangling from it. And this was the message on the tag: “Trust your identity; be in touch with your reality.” Well, my reality never calls. It never even sends a postcard. My reality and I haven’t spoken since 2014, when I told my reality to take a hike. And my identity was stolen by Slovenian hackers last October, so I certainly don’t trust that. So I think we should tell these big tea companies, first of all, you can just keep out of my personal life, thank you very much, and in return we won’t ask you about your relatives. And second, it’s not “tea” unless it’s made from Camellia sinensis, okay? So don’t go telling me peppermint and licorice root and dogbane and lawn clippings all stuffed into a little bag make “tea,” because you’re not fooling anybody but yourselves. —Sincerely, Name Withheld Against My Will.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art has made scads of splendid coffee-table books available in high-resolution scans at Google Books. When you’re done here, you can go over there and spend a few hours among the masterpieces of the world’s art. Here, for example, is a beautiful book about Armenia.

This seems like a very good idea. Few if any sales will be discouraged: the people who want to remember the exhibition with an expensive coffee-table book will probably still want the book, and the Google Books scan probably generates sales to people who see the book on line and think it would be lovely to have it on paper. But the main thing is that the Met understands its mission as disseminating information to the public, not making money for the stockholders.

We can contrast this with the attitude of Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press wants $81.60 for the ebook version of F. E. Peters’ Jerusalem, a book published in 1985. We repeat that this is the ebook, so no material costs whatsoever are involved. You might think that, say, $19.95 would seem a bit much for a 38-year-old backlisted ebook, but at least it would not trigger the automatic “outrageous” flag in every sane brain. You laugh at $81.60. You will not pay it. And your reaction is probably typical. Does Princeton University Press really make more money by pricing this ebook at $81.60 than it would make by pricing it at $9.99?

Now, if you want the book on paper, well, that runs into money. For Jerusalem, the price is $260—for a paperback copy.

What accounts for that price? How does the publisher justify it?

“The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions.”

Gosh! Dr. Boli—and he is revealing a trade secret here—uses the latest print-on-demand technology in his celebrated Publishing Empire, too! But he sure feels like a sucker now for pricing The Emperor at $11.88 when he could be charging twenty times that. To reveal another trade secret, he actually makes a small profit at that price. It is just enough so that the book sales pay for the Web hosting and domain names in the on-line division of the Publishing Empire, which is thus self-supporting and therefore self-justifying. Furthermore, Dr. Boli will point out that he wrote the book, which cost him some amount of effort, whereas Princeton University Press is merely scrounging in the big old barrel of long-out-of-print books to which they still have the rights. For that they get $260. Or at least they ask $260. We must suppose that they do sometimes get it, doubtless from people who are spending other people’s money, because the “Legacy Library” scam has been going on for several years.

But now you can amuse yourself for a moment by speculating: How much of the $260 price for Jerusalem do you suppose goes to F. E. Peters, the author thereof, thus promoting the Progress of Science and useful Arts by encouraging him to write more books?

The answer: None of it, because F. E. Peters died three years ago.


p. vii    for    Preface    read    Foreword

p. xviii    for    Foreword    read    Preface

p. xxxvii    for    has earned my profoundest gratitude    read    can go suck eggs for all I care

p. 23    for    sculpture    read    rupture

p. 64    for    Athanasius    read    Anastasia

p. 89    for    accustomed vigor    read    a custard figure

p. 146    for    pthhhhhht    read    pthhhhhhht

p. 204    for    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times    read    Call me Ishmael

p. 278    for    To Be Continued    read    The End


Dear Dr. Boli: So the other day at work I was talking about visiting a bookstore, and the woman I was talking to said, “These days I read all my books on a device.” And I said, “That’s nice,” but I really had no idea what she was talking about. I mean, I thought reading a book was about the simplest thing you could do. What kind of “device” do people use to read books? —Sincerely, Ned Ludd, Anstey.

Dear Sir: Your colleague probably means something like the device the poet Horace is using in this woodcut from 1498:

Scribe at desk from 1498

It’s rather handy for reference books, and modern versions are available from various manufacturers, although usually without the attractively spiral-turned swinging arm.


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


“Okay,” I said, “first of all, don’t panic. I don’t want you to lose your head.”

“I am quite calm, Mr. Marlow,” said Mrs. Pifler. “My head is firmly attached to my neck.”

“Good. Keep it that way. Now, what makes you say he’s missing?”

“The fact that he is not here.”

“Well, that’s a start. And you don’t think he just stepped out for a while?”

“That is a possibility,” she admitted. “However, the condition of his library suggests something more than just stepping, unless it was a herd of enraged elephants that was doing the stepping.”

“Okay, you hang tight. I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

“Oh, there’s no need to rush,” she said. “I just wanted you to be apprised of the latest development. I mean, he’ll probably be just as missing tomorrow. Or the day after.”

“Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but your husband’s life may depend on how fast we act.”

“I suppose. But then he may already be dead, and then wouldn’t you feel silly if you’d hurried up and it was all for nothing?”

“I’ll take the chance.”

I hung up and headed back down the stairs.

This time I took a cab, so I wouldn’t get lost on the streetcar again. The cabbie wanted a tip, so I told him to put everything on Shaggy Dog at the Meadowlands. He was still shouting something when the Piflers’ butler opened the door.

“Sir was expected,” the butler said as I walked in.

“Sir? What sir is that?”

“Sir, sir.”

“You mean me?”

“Yes, sir. Sir is ‘sir,’ sir.”

“Oh. Sorry. I don’t speak butler.”

We might have gone on like that for an hour or two, but we were interrupted by the lady of the house.

“Thank you for coming out so quickly,” said Mrs. Pifler. She was coming down the stairs, and in the gown she was wearing coming down the stairs was a whole Busby Berkeley production number. “It really wasn’t necessary, but I do appreciate the gesture.”

“Well, that’s what you pay me for. So you say someone broke into the library?”

“Not broke in. There’s no evidence of breaking and entering. However, once he had entered, he did quite a bit of breaking.”

“Well, let’s see it,” I said, and I started walking.

“Not that way!” Mrs. Pifler said, grabbing my coat sleeve. “Never that way! The south wing isn’t safe. I mean, it’s booked by a private party. What I mean is, it’s very dusty. Actually, there is no south wing. None at all. Forget I said anything. This is the way you want to go.”

She led me in the other direction, and now I remembered that this was the way the butler had led me before. We walked down the same long hallway and stopped in front of the same door, or at least I assumed it was the same door, although I don’t know if there was any way to tell except by counting the doors.

“You can see what I meant about the elephants,” said Mrs. Pifler.

It certainly wasn’t the way I remembered the library. It was mostly colors everywhere I looked. As my eye gradually adjusted, I started to sort out what I was seeing. The floor was covered from wall to wall with picks of every color, with only an occasional overturned cardboard box to interrupt the carpet of Bakelite.

“I guess he doesn’t normally leave the library in this state.”

“Mr. Pifler is always careful to pack up one box before pulling down another,” Mrs. Pifler responded. “Or he was very careful. I suppose until we’re quite sure what happened I’ll be having trouble with verb tenses.”

“If your husband thought he was in some kind of trouble,” I asked, “where do you think he’d go?”

“Here,” she answered without hesitating. “He always came to the library when he wanted to avoid me.”

“But he didn’t have a club or something?”

“Not as such. Not per se. The only social life he had was at work, and of course his occasional visits to the Free Polo Grounds to see how the poor were doing with their polo ponies.”

“You think he might have gone to one of those places?”

“He might have, Mr. Marlow, but I am quite certain he didn’t.”

“What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Well, then, I don’t really know what you expect me to do.”

“I expect you to find out who killed my husband.”

“We don’t even know he’s dead.”

“True. You will have to remove that uncertainty as well.”

As I left the Pifler place, I had a strange feeling that there were some things Mrs. Pifler wasn’t telling me. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly. It was just something about the way she kept saying “I can’t tell you that” that made me think she might not be telling me something.

But she was the client, so I might as well play the game her way.

So I figured if the only social life Pifler had was at work, there might be people he worked with who knew things about him his wife didn’t know. Betty knows more about me than anybody, and I know she doesn’t mind telling perfect strangers what she thinks of me. If I was lucky, maybe Pifler would have that kind of secretary.

When I got to the Consolidated Ice-Cream Carton Manufacturing Co., I asked the guy at the front desk, “Is Mr. Pifler’s secretary in?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Well,” I said, “how about a vice-president or something?”

“Not many people here,” said front-desk guy. “Mostly just me and the elevator crew.”

“Why isn’t anybody else here?”

“Cause it’s nine-thirty at night.”

“Yeah, I s’pose that makes a difference,” I grudgingly admitted.

“So you one of those guys looking for a Croydon?”

“What do you mean?”

“So far I’ve had six guys here looking for a Croydon. One of ’em even pulled a water pistol on me.”

“You don’t say… You got any idea what this Croydon thing is?”

“Nope. But whatever it is, they ain’t gettin’ it. Maybe there’s a Croydon here and maybe there ain’t, but I don’t get paid to let any old hobo come in here and take what he wants. Lucky I know Giu Gizzu, the ancient Italian art of self-defense. Just a friendly warning, in case you came here looking for Croydons.”

“I don’t even know what a Croydon is,” I said. “But somebody sure wants one. They tried to shake one out of me, too. No, I came here for something completely different and not related to Croydons at all. I’m looking for old man Pifler.”

“The President? He’s home with his wife, as far as I know. At least that’s where I’d be if I had a wife who looked like that.”

“But he’s not there. His wife is worried about him, and she hired me to figure out what happened to him.”

“Really?” Suddenly he was very animated. “You a private detective, like that Sam Spade character?”

“That’s my racket, yeah.”

“Wow! A real detective! This is the most exciting thing that’s happened on my shift since we had mice!”


“Well, just one mouse, but he was a lot of trouble, believe me. I hired this weird-looking blue cat to take care of him, but he was worse than useless. Anyway, I came to an agreement with the mouse, and as long as the cheese holds out we’re fine. But that was the last time anything exciting ever happened around here. A detective! That’s even more exciting than a mouse! Hey, can you detect something for me? I’ve always wanted to see somebody do that.”

“Maybe if I could get in to see old man Pifler’s office…”

“Say no more! Well, I mean, obviously you can say as much as you like, but I’ll get you into the President’s office. I mean, it’s not every day a detective comes to detect stuff around here.”

He stood up and started leading me back toward the elevators. I almost had to run to keep up with him. When we reached the bank of elevators, one of the doors slid open, revealing five men inside asleep on chairs.

“Wake up,” said desk guy. “We got a guest.”

One of the five immediately stood up by the elevator controls. The other four sat up and picked up two fiddles, a viola, and a cello, and after a nod from one of the fiddlers they began to play “Climbing Up the Ladder of Love.”

“Floor?” asked the one by the controls.

“All the way to the top,” said my guide as we stepped in. It was a little cramped with the six of us, but I guess it wouldn’t be much of an elevator ride without the music.

The door closed and we started to rise, passing the second floor, and then coming to a stop at the third.

“Third floor,” said the operator. “President’s office, potted palms, vending machines.”

My guide and I stepped out as soon as the door slid open. It closed again behind us, but I could still hear muffled music as we walked down the dim hallway.

At the end we reached a door with a sign that said A. C. PIFLER, PRESIDENT.

“This is the place,” said my guide. “Can’t wait to see you detect something.”

He opened the door.

Papers were everywhere, drawers and cabinets were open, and there was a guy sitting at the desk with his hand in the top drawer, looking kind of startled. I mean the guy was looking kind of startled, not the hand. Or the drawer. That would just be silly.

“Hey!” said my guide. “Who are you?”

“Uh,” said the man at the desk. Then, as if he’d decided his response could be improved on a little, he added, “What’s it to you?”

“I’m the night clerk,” my guide said, “and this is the President’s office.”

“Well,” the man at the desk said, and then he seemed to get himself together. “Well, I’m the night president.”

My guide looked a little dubious. “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“Oh yeah?” The guy at the desk thought for a moment. “Well, just for that you’re fired. Pack up your stuff and get out.”

The string quartet was playing a sad tune as we went back down in the elevator, and I felt kind of bad for the guy who had just lost his job. Something about the whole situation didn’t add up, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“Guess you’ll be looking for another job,” I said as I watched the former night clerk put his few belongings into his coat pocket.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Already know what I’m gonna do.”

“Oh really? What’s that?”

He put on an old blue fedora and pulled it down with an air of determination. “I’m gonna be your sidekick,” he said.


Dear Dr. Boli: You’ve tried to explain American religion several times before, but those essays are, like, dozens or even hundreds of words long. Could you distill that information into a portable form for the busy executive on the go? —Sincerely, Francis, Vatican City.

Dear Sir: Everything there is to know about the religious attitudes of the American people is summed up in the words of a bumper sticker that has been popular on pickup trucks for a generation or more:

I’d rather PUSH a Ford
than drive a Chevy

Sometimes the brands are reversed, but the religious sentiment is the same. Remember the words of that bumper sticker, and you will know what religion means to Americans and in what gods they place their faith.