12 Curious Facts About Books and Authors in Honor of National Book Lovers Day
Bibliophiles don’t need a holiday to celebrate a good book—or learn fascinating facts about their favorite novels and novelists—but then again, an excuse can’t hurt. In honor of National Book Lovers Day, here are just a few of our favorite tidbits from Mental Floss’s book about books, The Curious Reader.
1. Agatha Christie had an issue with the film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express.
Murder on the Orient Express was adapted as a film for the first time in 1974, with Sidney Lumet directing and Albert Finney playing detective Hercule Poirot. (Supposedly, Lord Louis Mountbatten, a member of Britain’s royal family and father-in-law of one of the producers, was a key player in convincing Christie to allow the movie to be made.) Though the film was a huge success—Finney nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing Poirot, and Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role—Christie did have a tiny issue with it. “It was well made except for one mistake,” she’s quoted as saying. “It was Albert Finney, as my detective Hercule Poirot. I wrote that he had the finest mustache in England—and he didn’t in the film. I thought that a pity—why shouldn’t he have the best mustache?”
2. As a kid, Never Let Me Go author Kazuo Ishiguro was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes.
“I’d go to school and say things like: ‘Pray, be seated’ or ‘That is most singular,’” the author told The New York Times. “People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese.” The Hound of the Baskervilles remains his favorite Sherlock Holmes story: “It was scary and gave me sleepless nights, but I suspect I was drawn to Conan Doyle’s world because, paradoxically, it was so very cozy.”
3. John le Carré couldn't remember where he got his pen name.
This author of spy novels was himself a spy in England when he began publishing novels in 1961. His employers had no issues with the novel, but said he’d have to use a pseudonym. His publisher suggested that David John Moore Cornwell go by something like Chunk-Smith. But as for how he came up with John le Carré, well … he couldn't remember. “I was asked so many times why I chose this ridiculous name, then the writer’s imagination came to my help,” the author told The Paris Review. “I saw myself riding over Battersea Bridge, on top of a bus, looking down at a tailor’s shop … And it was called something of this sort—le Carré. That satisfied everybody for years. But lies don’t last with age. I find a frightful compulsion toward truth these days. And the truth is, I don’t know.”
4. Paulo Coelho's parents committed him to an asylum because they didn’t want him to be a writer.
Coelho was raised in a devoutly Catholic household and went to Jesuit school. He knew as a kid that he wanted to be a writer, but his parents weren’t thrilled—they wanted him to be an engineer instead. “My parents tried everything to dissuade me,” The Alchemist author told Oprah Winfrey. “They tried to bribe me. Then they cut off all the money they gave me to buy, I don't know, soft drinks. Then they tried a psychiatrist. Then they lost hope and said, ‘This guy is crazy. We love him, but he's crazy.’” His parents put him in a mental institution three times, starting when he was 17—but Coelho always escaped.
5. Americanah could have gone by a different title.
Americanah was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first title for her 2013 novel, because, as she told Goodreads, “I liked the playfulness and irreverence of it.” But she flirted with changing it to The Small Redemptions of Lagos, the name of the blog Ifemelu starts writing when she comes back to Nigeria, because she thought it sounded “more poetic.” But Adichie ultimately went back to Americanah when “a good friend told me [The Small Redemptions of Lagos] sounded like the title of a small book sold under the bridge in Lagos.”
6. Crime and Punishment author Fyodor Dostoevsky had epilepsy.
As a student, Dostoevsky had a number of seizures, and even suffered from a serious grand mal seizure in 1844. Later, he would record less intense seizures in his journal, writing that they were triggered by things like working too much or not getting enough sleep. He was diagnosed with epilepsy in 1849, around the time he went to prison. In 1928, 47 years after Dostoevsky’s death, none other than Sigmund Freud weighed in on his diagnosis, saying that his seizures were caused by neurosis, and “must be accordingly classified as hystero-epilepsy—that is severe hysteria.” Modern-day neurologists, however, believe Dostoevsky’s epilepsy was the real thing.
7. James Baldwin's publisher told him to burn Giovanni's Room.
The book’s subject matter was such a shock to Baldwin’s publishers at Knopf that they wanted him to burn the manuscript. The fact that it dealt with topics that were taboo at the time wasn’t the only problem; because Giovanni’s Room was so different from Go Tell It on the Mountain, his publisher feared Baldwin would alienate his reader base. Knopf refused to move forward with the book, so Dial Press published it in the U.S. instead in 1956. The new publisher had similar fears, however, and they pulled Baldwin’s author photo, supposedly to hide the fact that a novel about queer white characters was written by a Black man. Despite the hand-wringing surrounding its release, Giovanni’s Room received generally positive reviews from critics.
8. House Made of Dawn was originally a series of poems.
N. Scott Momaday considers himself a poet, not a novelist. As he told an interviewer, he thinks of House Made of Dawn as an aberration, a deviation from his poetic norm—he didn’t intend for the story to become his debut novel. He first conceived of it as a cycle of poems while pursuing his doctorate at Stanford, where he focused his dissertation on poetry. After spending several years immersed in verse, he sought a new challenge and turned his attention toward fiction. The inkling of an idea for House Made of Dawn then morphed into a series of short stories before finally evolving into the novel that exists today.
9. The madeleine in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time could have been toast.
When we first meet Proust’s narrator in Swann’s Way, he’s deadened by habit and inexplicably blocked from accessing most of his memories. That suddenly changes as soon as he tastes one tea-soaked morsel of a madeleine, which evokes a similar experience from his childhood and unleashes a torrent of other memories. Though Proust did base that pivotal moment on a real-life incident, his own madeleine de Proust wasn’t actually a madeleine. It was a rusk—a crisp, dry, twice-baked biscuit. And in 2015, a set of newly published handwritten manuscripts revealed that Proust had initially intended the scene to mirror its source material more accurately. In his first version, the narrator eats a slice of toast with honey; and in the second, he bites into a biscotte, or rusk. To think, readers may never have had the pleasure of hearing Proust describe a sweet, spongey madeleine as “the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds.”
10. Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children seemed to be cursed.
The publication date of Midnight’s Children was delayed several times, according to Rushdie. The initial printing of the book was delayed by a printers’ strike in the United States; a transport strike led to a delay in copies of the book arriving in England; finally, a dock-workers’ strike set back the unloading of the printed and transported books. While the image of thousands of copies of a seminal work of 20th century literature rotting away in shipping containers would fit neatly into Rushdie’s ironic worldview, in the long run, labor disputes and the sardonic wit of fate proved helpless in the face of a great book. Midnight’s Children received plaudits around the world.
11. The manuscript of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was nearly lost.
In 1957, Achebe was studying at the BBC in London when he showed his manuscript for Things Fall Apart to Gilbert Phelps, an instructor at his school. Phelps wanted to give the book to his publishers, but Achebe still had revisions to make, so he took the manuscript back to Nigeria, and made the edits. Then he sent his handwritten manuscript, the only copy of Things Fall Apart in existence, to a London typing agency in the mail. The agency responded that they’d received his manuscript and requested a payment of 32 pounds for two copies, which Achebe sent.
And then he waited … and waited … and waited. For months.
Achebe wrote the agency repeatedly, but got no answer. Eventually, his boss, who was heading back to London for vacation, went to the agency, demanded they find and type the book, and send it back, which they did—but only one copy, not the two Achebe had paid for. And he never got an explanation for what had happened.
12. Leo Tolstoy had issues writing the opening of War and Peace.
It took almost a full year for Tolstoy to write an introduction to War and Peace that he was happy with. During that time, according to Tolstoy scholar Kathryn B. Feuer, he wrote 15 beginnings (elaborating on two of them), as well as four introductions and a preface to the novel.
A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2022.