Feb. 23, 2007

The Invention of Fractions

by Jessica Goodfellow

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Poem: "The Invention of Fractions" by Jessica Goodfellow, from A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland. © Concrete Wolf Chapbook Series. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Invention of Fractions

God himself made the whole numbers: everything else
is the work of man.

                                                 —Leopold Kronnecker

God created the whole numbers:
the first born, the seventh seal,
Ten Commandments etched in stone,
the Twelve Tribes of Israel —
Ten we've already lost —
forty days and forty nights,
Saul's ten thousand and David's ten thousand.
'Be of one heart and one mind' —
the whole numbers, the counting numbers.

It took humankind to need less than this;
to invent fractions, percentages, decimals.
Only humankind could need the concepts
of splintering and dividing,
of things lost or broken,
of settling for the part instead of the whole.

Only humankind could find the whole numbers,
infinite as they are, to be wanting;
though given a limitless supply,
we still had no way
to measure what we keep
in our many-chambered hearts.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the journalist and novelist William Shirer, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1904). He graduated from college in the spring of 1925, and he had a steady job waiting for him the following autumn, so he decided to spend his last summer before becoming a real adult traveling in Paris. Once he got there, he found that he loved European life. He became friends with writers and artists and began to think that he didn't want to go home. He tried to get a job with one of the local newspapers, but nobody would take him. So at the end of two months, he went to his own going-away party, assuming he'd be leaving the following morning for America. That following morning, he got a job offer from the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. His first assignment was to cover the Charles Lindberg's flight across the Atlantic.

He had originally hoped that journalism would help support him while he wrote novels, but after meeting and becoming friends with several novelists, he decided that he was not going to be a Fitzgerald or a Hemingway or a Dos Passos. And so he began to take his career as a journalist more seriously.

Shirer moved to Berlin in 1934 to serve as the foreign correspondent for The New York Herald, and he covered the rise of Nazism. When his job was eliminated, Edward R. Murrow hired him as the radio correspondent for CBS. He reported from Prague and Vienna on the growing preparations for war.

Because he couldn't say everything he wanted to say in his radio broadcasts, Shirer kept a diary of all the little details he was noticing about the changes in ordinary life under the Nazis. He had to smuggle the book out of Germany when he learned that the Gestapo were planning to arrest him for espionage. That book, Berlin Diary (1941), became one of the first accounts of life in Germany under the Nazis to be published, and it was a big best-seller.

After the war, Shirer was labeled a communist sympathizer, and couldn't find work as a journalist. In desperation to make a living, he began writing the book that became The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1961). It was the first historical overview of Nazi Germany for general readers, and it was published at a time when Americans who had lived through the war were ready to look back on what had happened. It became one of the best-selling nonfiction books of the decade.

It's the birthday of one of the greatest diarists in the English language, Samuel Pepys, (books by this author) born in London (1633). Pepys began his diary in 1659, and he would keep it for almost 10 years. It wasn't uncommon at the time for well-educated men to keep a journal, but most of these men wrote dry descriptions of their travels, politics, and public affairs. As far as we know, Pepys was the first Englishman to fill his diary with descriptions of his most personal and ordinary experiences: his aches and pains, what he liked to eat, going to the bathroom, his marital love life, and his extramarital affairs, graphic details that novelists wouldn't start incorporating into their work for more than 200 years. He also wrote about historical events like the Great Plague of 1665, the Great Fire of 1666, and the Dutch attack on the Medway in 1667.

Pepys quit writing the diary in 1669, because his eyesight was failing and he was worried that he was going to go blind. He bound it in six volumes and gave it to a college in Cambridge. The first edition of it was published in 1825, and it kept being republished again and again, with more and more of the explicit entries included. The complete diary was finally published in 1970.

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