Jun. 21, 2004
In the Library
Poem: "In the Library," by Charles Simic, from The Voice at 3:00 AM. © Harcourt, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
In the Library
There's a book called
A Dictionary of Angels.
No one had opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered
The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.
Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.
She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. On this day, the sun reaches its most northerly position in relation to the earth: twenty-three degrees twenty-seven minutes north latitude—the Tropic of Cancer. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night.
It's the birthday of naturalist and writer Donald Culross Peattie, born in Chicago (1898). He's best known for his two books about the natural history of American trees: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1950). Instead of just describing the characteristics of trees, Peattie wrote long essays about the different roles trees have played in American history, and about his personal experiences with trees.
Peattie came from a family of writers: his mother reviewed books for Chicago newspapers and his father wrote for the New York Times. After college, he got a job as a botanist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and then as a nature columnist for the Washington Evening Star. In 1928, he and his wife decided to go to France to try to write novels. They lived in the South of France for six years, but Peattie grew to miss the natural landscape of America. He later said, "I wanted safety in blue distance, illimitable, uninhabited. I wanted ... the grandeur of free solitude. I wanted to smell Wisconsin north woods again."
Peattie and his wife moved to a farmstead near Chicago, and Peattie began keeping a detailed journal of the natural world around his home. In 1935 he published selections from his journal as An Almanac for Moderns. For each day of the year, he wrote one or two paragraphs about some aspect of nature in the square mile around his house. The almanac was a big success, and it made Peattie one of the most well known naturalists of his time.
Peattie said, "Beauty is excrescence, superabundance, random ebullience, and sheer delightful waste to be enjoyed in its own right."
It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan, born in Aldershot, England (1948). After college, he didn't know what he wanted to do, so he took a hitchhiking trip across Italy. He was going through a pile of brochures for Masters programs in English when he came across one at East Anglia, taught by the writer Malcom Bradbury, that would allow him to write fiction for credit. Up until that point he had hardly written any fiction, but he decided to go there anyway, and he spent the whole year writing short stories and discussing them with Bradbury. By the time he graduated he was publishing his stories in literary magazines.
In 1975, McEwan came out with his first book, the collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites. He's since published many more books, including the novels The Comfort of Strangers (1981), Black Dogs (1992) and Amsterdam, which won the Booker Prize in 1998.
McEwan once called fiction "a higher level of gossip."
It's the birthday of Jean-Paul Sartre, born in Paris (1905). He's known as one of the major philosophers of the twentieth century, but he started out as a novelist and a playwright. After he graduated from college, he traveled through Egypt, Greece and Italy and worked as a teacher in Paris. He became part of a group of intellectuals who met to discuss philosophy and literature at cafés on the Left Bank of the Seine. In 1938, he published his first novel, Nausea, about a man who becomes repulsed by his body and the world around him.
Nausea was a great success, but the following year Sartre was drafted into World War II. He was captured by the Germans, but he was released, and in 1941 he came back to Paris and joined the underground resistance movement. It was during this time that he developed the philosophy of existentialism that made him famous, and he wrote about it in his 1943 book Being and Nothingness. He said that the world is basically meaningless, but that once we realize this we can each create our own meaning.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®