Writer Claire Cock-Starkey reveals ten fascinating facts about all things literary, from the story of Albert Camus's last manuscript to a very saucy edition of The Bible. 

My new book The Book Lovers’ Miscellany was born out of my love of books combined with my zeal for collecting and curating fun facts. I joyfully dived down numerous literary rabbit holes to explore and uncover as many fascinating facts, diverting lists and curious potted histories with which to create a celebration of books, writers and reading. Below are ten of my favourite facts included in The Book Lovers’ Miscellany:


10. Many famous authors were rejected for publication numerous times

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was rejected by 38 different publishers before finally securing a deal and selling 30 million copies. Dubliners by James Joyce was rejected 22 times before it was published in a small print run (in its first year only 379 copies were sold and Joyce bought 120 of them himself). The Thomas Berryman Number by James Patterson was rejected by 31 publishers before securing a deal. Patterson has since sold over 220 million books.


9. Camus’s last novel was published after being recovered from the car crash that killed him

Albert Camus was working on the autobiographical novel The First Man when he was killed in a car crash in 1960. The muddied manuscript was found amongst the wreckage of the car and recovered. Camus’s daughter transcribed the unfinished novel and it was published in 1994.


8. The bestselling novel of all time might surprise you

The bestselling novel of all time is Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. Published in 1859, the classic book has sold an incredible 200 million copies worldwide. The Bible is the bestselling book of all time, selling an estimated 5 billion copies worldwide. The Bible was the first book off the printing press in c.1455 and has since been translated into over 394 languages.


7. Agatha Christie was a member of The Detection Club

In 1930 detective writer Anthony Berkeley set up the Detection Club. The club was a forum for mystery writers to meet and discuss writing and to this end the club held regular dinners in London. The club’s first president was G K Chesterton and some of the founding members included: Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Austin Freeman. The club created a list of ethics to try and ensure their mysteries were solvable and fair to the reading public. They also composed an oath which reflected the club’s ethics:

Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?


6. Russian masterpiece Dr Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1987

Boris Pasternak’s romantic masterpiece Doctor Zhivago was published in 1958 but was immediately suppressed by the Stalinist government who accused Pasternak of romanticising pre-revolution life in Russia and maligning the peasants’ struggle. The book was smuggled out of Russia in parts and translated and published around the world to great critical acclaim, earning Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

The book’s success did little for Pasternak who was banned from collecting the award and ejected from the Soviet Writer’s Union effectively ending his writing career. Pasternak sadly died in 1960 not living to see the 1965 film version of his book with Omar Sharif as the eponymous title character. In 1987, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, Doctor Zhivago was finally published in Russia.


5. The inspiration behind Samuel Clemens’ pen name Mark Twain

There are a number of stories for the origin of Samuel Clemens’ pen name. One suggests it came about from his former profession piloting a steam boat on the Mississippi River. When testing the depth of the water to see if it was deep enough for a steam boat to pass through the crew would shout "mark twain", twain being slang for "two" and meant there was only a shallow depth of two fathoms of water, which was the minimum depth for a boat to pass through.

Another story recounts that the nickname derived from Clemens’ love of a good drink and lack of money to pay for that drink. It was said that he often frequented the Old Saloon Bar in Virginia City which marked a patron’s tab in chalk on the wall. Clemens would so frequently ask them to "mark twain" (chalk up two drinks) that it became a nickname.

Clemens himself spun what is thought to have been another tall tale of the name’s origins, claiming that he took the name from an old pen name of Captain Isaiah Sellers who wrote the river news under that name but died in 1863 and so had no further use of it. Whichever story is the real truth we shall probably never know.


4. The Oxford English Dictionary has had some interesting contributors

In 1879 Oxford University Press were asked to create a comprehensive English-language dictionary which would include historical, outmoded and lost words plus the most recent neologisms. The dictionary’s editor James Murray was tireless in his search for words to include and hundreds of volunteers joined in, searching old books and documents for words or quotations for consideration which were passed to Murray as paper quotation slips which he sifted through in his scriptorium.

One of Murray’s most avid contributors was an American Civil War veteran, Dr William Chester Minor, who was serving a life sentence in Broadmoor Asylum for shooting a man, and consequentially had a lot of time on his hands. The full Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was finally published in 1928 and ran to 12 volumes representing the most comprehensive guide to the English language.


3. Mills & Boon novels were used to make the M6 toll road

In 2003 over 2.5 million damaged or discontinued Mills & Boon titles were acquired by the construction firm responsible for the building of the M6 toll road. The old romance titles were pulped and then poured onto the road surface as a strengthening and sound-proofing layer before the asphalt was laid.

Unbeknownst to most drivers on the M6 toll road, they're driving over approximately 45,000 old Mills & Boon titles for every mile they drive.


2. One of Ernest Hemingway’s early manuscripts was lost forever

The young Ernest Hemingway wrote a novel about his experiences during the First World War and it was bundled up with various other short stories and notes and packed into a suitcase. In 1922, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, took the suitcase on a train from Paris to Lausanne, Switzerland, where she was meeting Ernest who was covering the European Peace Conference there for the Toronto Daily Star.

Hemingway hoped to show his work to an editor named Lincoln Steffens, who had showed an interest in his ideas. Unfortunately at some point on the journey the suitcase was stolen and the manuscripts lost forever. Hemingway was said to be very upset by the loss but refused to attempt to rewrite the lost novel, leaving its contents unknown to the public.


1. A bible with a typo is very valuable

A 1631 edition of the King James Bible had a rather crucial error in its printing of the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt not commit adultery" was rendered as "Thou shalt commit adultery", much to the delight of sinners everywhere. Due to this error, this edition became known as The Wicked Bible and it is thought only ten copies survive, making it now extremely valuable.


Claire Cock-Starkey is a writer and editor based in Cambridge. To date she has had eight books published including Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins which was named one of QI’s ten most interesting books of 2016. The Book Lovers’ Miscellany is published by Bodleian Library Publishing and is available in all good bookshops from September 29, 2017. For more information see Claire’s website or follow her on Twitter.


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