Apr. 16, 2007

The List of Good Names

by Robert Fanning

MONDAY, 16 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "The List of Good Names" by Robert Fanning, from The Seed Thieves. © Marick Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The List of Good Names

Tonight, in the family style
pizzeria, we speak of having a child
some day. On a napkin smudged red
where the leaky felt tip lingered,
I watch meteors, sperm and tadpoles
cross the paper sky, as you
draw up a list of good names.

Looking at the list, I'm a substitute
teacher practicing attendance
before the class arrives:
Isabella, Gabriel, Rose. Who will be
the bookworm, the athlete, the clown?

Around us, the families finish
dinner, pack into minivans and leave.
The pimpled waiter picks up
broken crayons, wipes sauce
from a plastic high chair,
unplugs the video game.

Soon the room's as silent
as a doll shop after hours.
When I'm ready to speak, above
the ticking of the clock, my rubber
lips click. Whispering the list's
first name, I hear the voice

I used when I spoke your name
the first time—that voice I've used
when I try the name of an unknown
plant, or when I'm scared, or when
I pray, or when I know a stranger
now listens in the next booth,
the one I thought was vacant.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer Anatole France, (books by this author) born in Paris (1844). He wrote poems, plays, essays, short stories, and more than 20 novels, including At the Sign of the Queen Pedauque (1893), Penguin Island (1908), and The Gods Are Athirst (1912). He went on to become one of the most successful novelists in France, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.

Anatole France said, "Lovers who love truly do not write down their happiness."

It's the birthday of playwright John Millington Synge, (books by this author) born in a village just south of Dublin, Ireland (1871). He was living in Paris, writing literary criticism for magazines and newspapers. Then, in 1896, he met the poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats told him that instead of trying to work his way into literary circles in Paris, he should go to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland and write about the Irish-speaking peasants who lived there. Yeats said, "Live there as if you were one of the people themselves. Express a life that has never found expression." So, in 1898, Synge went the Aran Islands, and the material he gathered formed the basis for his two most successful plays, Riders to the Sea (1903) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907).

It was on this day in 1926 that the Book-of-the-Month Club shipped out its first selection, Lolly Willows, or, The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner (books by this author), to just about 5,000 members. Within a few decades, the Book-of-the-Month Club would become one of the most influential publishing forces in the history of American literature.

The Book-of-the-Month Club let customers sign up to buy one book a month at $3 apiece. The books were selected by an independent panel of experts, but if members didn't like the book chosen each month, they could choose an alternate.

Numerous literary critics thought the book club was a terrible idea, that it would result in a standardization of literature, and that readers would lose their ability to think or make decisions. But the Book-of-the-Month Club was being launched at a time when there were very few bookstores outside of big cities. Buying new books through the mail was the only way that most Americans could get their hands on those books.

In just its first 25 years, the Book-of-the-Month Club shipped more than 100 million books, averaging about 200,000 copies of each selection. Among the authors whose careers were launched in part by the Book-of-the-Month Club were Margaret Mitchell with Gone with the Wind (1936), John Steinbeck with Of Mice and Men (1937), Richard Wright with Native Son (1940), J.D. Salinger with The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Harper Lee with To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960), and Toni Morrison with Song of Solomon (1977).

It's the birthday of the comic novelist Kingsley Amis, (books by this author) born in London (1922). He was a student at Oxford when he met Philip Larkin who would become his closest friend for the rest of his life. At first, it was Philip Larkin who wanted to be a novelist, and Amis wanted to be a poet. But after Amis moved to Wales and got a job as a professor, he began sending comic descriptions of his campus life to Larkin, and Larkin helped him turn those sketches his first novel: Lucky Jim (1954). It was one of the first modern "campus novels," and is generally considered one of the funniest novels in British literature.

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