In 1939, an unusual work of fiction was put forth. Gadsby is a story about a dying city, Branton Hill, and a man (Gadsby) who brings it back to glory. Its anonymous narrator continually complains about his poor writing skills, and usually commits his thoughts in a circumlocutionary fashion: “Now, naturally, in writing such a story as this, with its conditions as laid down in its Introduction, it is not surprising that an occasional ‘rough spot’ in composition is found. So I trust that a critical public will hold constantly in mind that I am voluntarily avoiding words containing that symbol which is, by far, of most common inclusion in writing our Anglo-Saxon as it is, today.”
To which common symbol is our anonymous narrator alluding? Our most common symbol: E.
Gadsby is a 50,110-word lipogram—a work that omits words with a particular symbol or group of symbols. This ambitious act was no picnic—a primary difficulty in writing in this format was avoiding action words in past forms. Gadsby’s author also had to turn famous sayings into lipogrammatic forms, such as “music can calm a wild bosom” and “a charming thing is a joy always,” and could not talk about any quantity ’twixt six and thirty.
Although Gadsby was an unusual and prodigious work, its author could not find a book company to print it, and finally had to publish it on his own. And though not a hit in 1939, it is now a darling amongst lipogram fans; it is also a holy grail for antiquarian book fanatics, as a building housing all prints of Gadsby burnt down soon following its publication.
Ironically, a singular situation occurs in which Gadsby’s author could not avoid using that missing symbol—his own autograph: Ernest Vincent Wright.
Barring said author’s autograph and a singular notation, this Did You Know is also a lipogram (though not as ambitious—it only contains 312 words).