Posts filed under “Books & Literature”


Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the founder of literary culture in Pittsburgh, describes a somewhat eccentric interpretation of the prophecy of Ezekiel by the preacher, pamphleteer, legislator, and Whiskey Insurrectionist Herman Husband.

I had visited him, in the year 1780, at his residence, in the glades of the Allegheny mountain, on my way from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. He had then just finished a commentary on a part of the prophet Ezekiel: it was the vision of the temple; the walls, the gates, the sea of glass, &c. Logger-head divines, heretofore, had interpreted it of the New Jerusalem; but he conceived it to apply to the western country; and the walls were the mountains, the gates, the gaps in them, by which the roads came, and the sea of glass, the lake on the west of us. I had no hesitation in saying, that the commentary was analogous to the vision. He was pleased; and said, I was the only person, except his wife, that he ever got to believe it. Thought I, your church is composed, like many others, of the ignorant and the dissembling.

This comes from Brackenridge’s history of the Whiskey Rebellion, a new and accurate edition of which is now in preparation.


Portrait of an unknown woman, by Egon Josef Kossuth.

Today’s easy lesson: the word “over.”

In colloquial English, the word “over” is commonly used to mean “above” or “more than.”

For example: “There are over fifty books in that library.” Yes, “more than” might be better, but we know what it means: it means there are fifty-three books, or sixty-two books, or one thousand three hundred eighty-eight books. In other words, the number is greater than fifty.

In Marketingspeak, however, “over” has a specialized meaning. It is placed in front of a number to indicate, “Here comes a number.”

For example (an Internet search result): “Faithful art reproductions by Egon Josef Kossuth. Choose from over 1 artworks by the famous artist.”

Exercise: How many paintings by Egon Josef Kossuth will you find at that site?

Answer: One. “Over” is used to indicate, “Here comes the number 1.”


The article on Apuleius in Wikipedia has this to say about his Metamorphoses or Golden Ass:

Being an immensely sophisticated narrative that opens up various perspectives onto a rich cultural and social life, Metamorphoses was underappreciated until recent decades.

Dr. Boli has a proposition for professors of literature and allied academics. If you will refrain from asserting or implying that yours is the first generation in history to develop sophisticated literary tastes, Dr. Boli will refrain from spending the five minutes in Google Books it would take to prove you wrong.


A certain comedian was asked, “When the rooster gets up in the morning, why does he hold one foot up in the air?”

The comedian replied, “Because if he held up both he’d fall down.”

Ha ha! You must be thinking to yourself, “Dr. Boli has a new writer on his staff, one of those young kids who are up on all the latest jokes.” But in fact this joke is a fairly old one. It comes from a joke book compiled in Syriac in the 1200s by Mar Gregory John Bar Hebræus, who was Maphrian of the East from 1264 to 1286. Mar Gregory was merely a compiler, so most of his jokes are considerably older than that. Dr. Boli thinks that a religion whose maphrians sit around compiling books of jokes is a religion that has its priorities straight.

The book has a whole section of “laughable stories of actors and comedians,” and it is clear that the medieval Syriac-speaking Christians developed a Borscht Belt long before we had thought of such a thing.

An actor had taken money on loan from a certain man, but then denied it. The lender took him to court, and the judge asked him,

“Do you have any witnesses?”

The lender said, “No.”

The judge turned to the actor. “Now swear to me that you have not received the money.”

“If it’s all right with you,” said the actor, “could you let my brother swear for me? I know for certain he hasn’t taken anything.”

Some of the jokes make fun of people who are ostentatiously religious, showing that our maphrian had a fine contempt for hypocrisy.

An actor heard a man saying to his companion, “When you’re traveling at night and you want the dogs not to molest you, shout this verse from the Psalms in their faces: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”

The actor broke in: “But tell him to take a stick in his hand, too. Not all dogs understand the Psalms, although there may be some of them who read them.”

Of course there’s a big section of fools, too. Fools say the darnedest things.

A fool said. “My father went to Jerusalem twice, and he died and was buried there. But I don’t know which time he died—the first time or the second.”

Often the mark of the fool is overlooking the obvious.

Another fool whose hawk had escaped asked the governor to shut the gates of the city until he had caught him.

But sometimes these fools make us wonder how foolish they really are.

Another fool was praying: “O Lord, give me five thousand pieces of silver, so that I may give a thousand of them to the poor. But if you don’t trust me, just give me the four thousand and give the other thousand to the poor yourself.”

Then there are cynical professionals like doctors and lawyers.

A certain man had been a painter, but became a physician instead. When he was asked why he had done that, he replied, “Everyone could see the mistakes I made in painting. All the mistakes I make in healing are buried in the ground.”

The book comes to us in a translation by the indefatigable E. A. Wallis Budge, who was Keeper of the Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, and who seems to have read Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic as fluently as he read Egyptian hieroglyphs and Assyrian cuneiform. Dr. Boli has modernized the fussily literal translation, but the jokes themselves need no modernization. Many of the stories in the book are not really laughable; some are remarkable occurrences that happened too early to be reported in a supermarket tabloid, and some are pithily wise sayings from philosophers and kings. But there are plenty of jokes, and it does us Westerners good to see how little we differ in the fundamental things from our Eastern brethren. We have added this book to the new page of Syriac Christianity in the Eclectic Library.

The Laughable Stories collected by Mâr Gregory John Bar-Hebræus, Maphrian of the East from a.d. 1264 to 1286. The Syriac text with an English translation. By E. A. Wallis Budge. London: Luzac and Co., 1897.


“Write with confidence across documents, email, and the web,” says the advertisement. “With features that help strengthen your spelling, grammar, and style…”

Well, it sounds good so far.

“…let Microsoft Editor be your intelligent writing assistant on LinkedIn, Google docs (beta), Facebook, Gmail, and many other locations.”


The question that comes to mind first is whether we would trust Microsoft with a red pencil.

After that, we have an observation: LinkedIn comes first. Of course LinkedIn, the Microsoft property, comes first in Microsoft World. Dr. Boli asked his secretary what LinkedIn was the first time he heard it mentioned, and his secretary helpfully explained, “LinkedIn is Facebook for boring people.”

Imagine a social network where all content goes through hours of self-censorship before it is posted, because the users know that they are really writing a permanent resumé that will be examined by every employer with even moderate computer skills. Imagine a social network where every user expects every status update to be examined not only by her current employers but also by all potential future employers, and possibly by St. Peter at the pearly gates. Imagine how dull that would be. Can you achieve such a stunning level of dullness all by yourself? Probably not. You need professional help—professional help from Microsoft.