11 Strange Habits of Geniuses

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Genius and eccentricity often go hand-in-hand. Here’s a sampling of strange habits practiced by some of history’s most respected artists, writers, and inventors.

1. PYTHAGORAS HATED BEANS.

Dubbed “the father of vegetarianism,” Greek mathematician Pythagoras is credited with popularizing a meatless lifestyle. But although he subsisted solely on veggies, he had no love for legumes. Pythagoras refused to eat beans, and even forbade his followers from ingesting or touching them. While we don’t know whether this aversion stemmed from health or religious reasons, it may have it led to his death. According to legend, attackers ambushed Pythagoras, and he refused to escape by running through a bean field.

2. BEETHOVEN KEPT A TUB OF WATER HANDY.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s process was almost as dramatic as his compositions. Beethoven was fond of writing in between visits to his washstand. He’d pace around a bit, then pour water all over himself—and his floorboards.

3. DEMOSTHENES HID OUT UNDERGROUND.

Demosthenes, a revered ancient Greek statesman, took the maxim “Practice makes perfect” to a whole new level. The orator rehearsed in an underground hideout for extended periods of time, according to an account by the historian Plutarch. He’d run through his speeches with stones in his mouth, and would occasionally shave half of his head to discourage himself from facing an audience before he was ready.

4. BALZAC DRANK 50 CUPS OF COFFEE A DAY.

Balzac might have owed his productivity to the copious amounts of caffeine he consumed, but the habit also came with a price. He was plagued by stomach cramps, headaches, and high blood pressure.

5. ANTHONY TROLLOPE TIMED HIS WRITING.

For a man who wrote only three hours a day, Anthony Trollope was quite productive. He churned out 250 words every 15 minutes—meaning by the time he was done working each day, he had produced 3000 words. And if he finished the book he was working on before his daily time allotment was up, he wouldn’t stop writing. Instead, he’d immediately begin another book.

6. STRAVINSKY DID HEADSTANDS.

Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky stood on his head for 15 minutes each morning to “clear his brain.”

7. EDGAR ALLAN POE WROTE ON SCROLLS.

Edgar Allan Poe often wrote on thin strips of paper, which he glued together and rolled into scrolls for easier storage. He felt the medium better contributed to a work’s flow than a regular old manuscript (and, presumably, looked spookier).

8. DA VINCI AND TESLA SHUNNED EIGHT-HOUR SLEEP SCHEDULES.

Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla adhered to alternative sleep schedules. Leonardo was said to have followed the polyphasic cycle, which means he took multiple short naps every 24 hours. Meanwhile, Tesla only rested two hours a day.

9. TESLA DID TOE EXERCISES.

Speaking of Tesla, the inventor had another strange habit: He’d curl his toes 100 times per foot every evening before going to bed because he thought the practice boosted his brain cells.

10. BEN FRANKLIN TOOK “AIR BATHS.”

Before he began the day’s work, Benjamin Franklin would spend up to an hour taking naked “air baths” at his open window.

11. KIERKEGAARD, NIETZSCHE, AND WOOLF WORKED STANDING UP.

Søren Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, and Virginia Woolf all wrote standing up. Woolf, who believed that writing was merely painting with one’s words, would often position herself at a lectern, next to her artist sister Vanessa’s easel. Friedrich Nietzsche would have approved; he slammed his pal Gustave Flaubert in a letter for the writer’s affinity for lounging during working hours. “There I have caught you, nihilist!” he wrote. “The sedentary life … is the very sin against the Holy Spirit. Only thoughts reached by walking have value.”

5 Controversial Facts About Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

iStock/TerryJ
iStock/TerryJ

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was born on December 10, 1851. Among other things, Dewey was a self-proclaimed reformer, so when working for the Amherst College library in the 1870s, he began to reclassify the facility’s books and how they were organized.

Though the system has gone through plenty of changes over the years, it’s still in wide use all over the world today and forever changed how libraries categorize their books. It has also caused a handful of controversies. In honor of Dewey Decimal Day, we dug into the organizational system—and its creator’s—dark side.

1. Melvil Dewey co-founded the American Library Association, but was forced out because of offensive behavior.

Melvil Dewey was an extremely problematic figure, even in his time. Though he co-founded the American Library Association (ALA), his often-offensive behavior—particularly toward women—didn’t make him a lot of friends.

In Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, author Wayne A. Wiegand described Dewey’s “persistent inability to control himself around women” as his “old nemesis.” In 1905, Dewey and several fellow ALA members took a cruise to Alaska following a successful ALA conference, with the purpose of discussing the organization’s future. Four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time. Within a year, Dewey was forced to step down from his involvement with the organization he helped to create.

2. Dewey required applicants to his School of Library Economy to submit photos.


A History of the Adirondacks, by Alfred Lee Donaldson (1921) // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, where 90 percent of his students were female. It was long rumored that in addition to basic information like name, age, and educational background, Dewey required that prospective female students also submit their bust sizes. While this rumor was eventually proven to be false, Dewey did ask women to submit photos, often noting that “You cannot polish a pumpkin.”

3. A Howard University librarian reorganized Dewey's original system because of its racial bias.

Dewey’s personal biases spilled over into his creation, too, and it has taken sincere effort and work to right those wrongs. In the 1930s, Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter helped create a new system to undo the racist way Dewey’s system treated black writers. As Smithsonian reported:

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

In addition to charges of racism, the DDS has also been accused of being homophobic. Early editions of the system classified books on or regarding LGBT issues under Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem, or even as Medical Disorders.

4. Its 'religion' section is skewed heavily toward Christianity.

The DDS section on religion starts at 200, and no other religion besides Christianity is covered until 290. Given that there are more than 4000 religions in the world, saving a mere 10 numbers for their classification doesn’t leave a lot of room for thorough coverage or exploration. Though some changes have been made as new editions of the system have been introduced, the process of restructuring the entire 200s is a project that has yet to be undertaken.

5. Critics of the system would prefer libraries take the Barnes & Noble approach.

The Dewey Decimal System is the most used library classification system, with the Chicago Tribune estimating that more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries use it. But it’s far from a perfect system. As such, many libraries are experimenting with other organizational techniques, and many are dropping the DDS altogether.

The main complaint that public libraries have is that the Dewey Decimal System does not make reading exciting, and that there are other ways of categorizing and organizing books that are more like that of general bookstores. By doing away with the numbers (which are hard to remember for general library patrons), some libraries are classifying books simply by category and organizing by author—a system they've begun referring to as "Dewey-lite."

6 Fast Facts About Nelly Sachs

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Today, on the 127th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle has been created in memory of writer Nelly Sachs, who died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 78. The German-Swedish poet and playwright wrote movingly about the horrors of the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped by fleeing her home and starting a new life in a foreign land. Here are six things to know about Sachs.

1. She was born in Germany.

Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, she grew up in the city's affluent Tiergarten section. She studied dance and literature as a child, and also started writing romantic poems at age 17.

2. She almost ended up in a concentration camp.

Sachs's father died in 1930, but she and her mother Margarete stayed in Berlin. In 1940, the Gestapo interrogated the two women and tore apart their apartment. They were told they had a week to report to a concentration camp, so they decided to flee the country. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Nelly had corresponded for years, saved their lives by convincing the Swedish royal family to help the two women escape to Sweden.

3. She worked as a translator.

Once Nelly and her mother reached Stockholm, Sachs began learning Swedish and ultimately took up work as a translator. She translated poetry from Swedish to German and vice versa.

4. She was nearly 60 when she published her first book of poetry.

Sachs’s first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), was published in 1947. In this anthology as well as later poems, she used religious imagery to evoke the suffering of her time and the Jewish people.

5. She won the German Book Trade's Peace Prize.

In 1965, Sachs won the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade. She shared a message of forgiveness when she accepted the award from her compatriots. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” she said.

6. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature on her 75th birthday.

Sachs and Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. According to The Nobel Prize’s website, Sachs was recognized "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.”

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