Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2177:
Clifton Fadiman

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we worship words. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

An alien species surrounded me when I was young -- a class of adults who fluently read and absorbed words -- last remnants of a free-wheeling 1920s intelligentsia. The priesthood of witty words was a high calling if you qualified. I never would; I could hardly read. I saw only higher life-form in these people.

After 1938, I heard them on the popular radio show: Information Please. Listeners sent arcane questions to a panel of savants who either answered, or made up witty rejoinders. They were the cream of the clever -- names like Bennet Cerf, Oscar Levant, George Kaufman. The crown prince and host of Information Please, was a man named Clifton Fadiman.

Even now I hear Fadiman's plumy voice: all that inaccessible knowledge, the panel so happy with its vast store of unintegrated fact, and my literate parents trying to keep up with them.

Fadiman was born in 1902. His uncle was William James Sidis, famous child prodigy who entered Harvard at eleven. Fadiman worked in publishing -- Editor-in-Chief of Simon Schuster, Book Review Editor for the New Yorker. His writings were fluent if fragmentary -- edited volumes, introductions, collections of essays and commentary. He never did provide a book-length work of his own.

All this came back in a rush when my wife gave me his edited collection of anecdotes -- so many odd bits: When Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked if we should believe in free will, Fadiman shot back, "We have to ... We have no choice." Then there's the archetypical witty intellectual, Voltaire. Fadiman claims that Rousseau sent Voltaire a poem titled Ode to Posterity, and got back a letter saying that the poem was unlikely to reach its destination.

Most intriguing of Fadiman's output are two books on mathematics -- sort of. Fadiman allows that he never really took to math, but reading about it can be a lot of fun. He offers short stories along with odds and ends. I like the bit about Möbius strips:

A mathematician confided
That a Möbius strip is one-sided
      And you'll get quite a laugh
      If you cut one in half,
For it stays in one piece when divided.

Fadiman's book The Lifetime Reading Plan gives short introductions to all sorts of classic literature -- thumbnail sketches of authors and a word about what they offer. His comments on Mark Twain give the flavor. He says that Twain and Henry James reflect two powerful forces in literature and thought -- the first "native, humorous, and in the best sense popular; the second Anglo-European-American, deeply analytic, and in the best sense aristocratic."

So did Fadiman lose his way? "The school," he wrote "is a greater invention than the internal combustion engine." Taken at face value, who could object? Taken in context, Fadiman, like Plato, seems to regard anything mechanical as beneath our dignity. He represented that baffling world of my childhood where being literary was sacred -- quite beyond anything that might come of it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


C. Fadiman, The Lifetime Reading Plan. (New York: The World Publishing Co. 1960).

Fantasia Mathematica. C. Fadiman, ed. (New York: Simon Schuster, Inc. 1958/1997).

Mathematical Magpie. C. Fadiman, ed. (New York: Simon Schuster, Inc. 1962/1997).

The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. C. Fadiman ed. (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985).

See also, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifton_Fadiman

I am grateful to Rousseau scholar Rob Zaretsky for additional counsel and for pointing out to me Fadiman's Rousseau/Voltaire anectdote is probably apocryphal -- that Rousseau may not ever have written such a poem, much less sent it to Voltaire.


Books, engine and Fadiman
(Fadiman image, upper right, courtesy of NBC)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.