Jun. 22, 2009


by John Updike

It looks easy from a distance,
easy and lazy, even,
until you stand up to the plate
and see the fastball sailing inside,
an inch from your chin,
or circle in the outfield
straining to get a bead
on a small black dot
a city block or more high,
a dark star that could fall
on your head like a leaden meteor.

The grass, the dirt, the deadly hops
between your feet and overeager glove:
football can be learned,
and basketball finessed, but
there is no hiding from baseball
the fact that some are chosen
and some are not—those whose mitts
feel too left-handed,
who are scared at third base
of the pulled line drive,
and at first base are scared
of the shortstop's wild throw
that stretches you out like a gutted deer.

There is nowhere to hide when the ball's
spotlight swivels your way,
and the chatter around you falls still,
and the mothers on the sidelines,
your own among them, hold their breaths,
and you whiff on a terrible pitch
or in the infield achieve
something with the ball so
ridiculous you blush for years.
It's easy to do. Baseball was
invented in America, where beneath
the good cheer and sly jazz the chance
of failure is everybody's right,
beginning with baseball.

"Baseball" by John Updike, from Endpoint and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of best-selling novelist Dan Brown, (books by this author) born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1964). He grew up on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, where his father was a teacher. He liked to read, but he read the classics or nonfiction. He went to college, got married, and he and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where he tried and failed to make it in the music business.

He went to Tahiti for a vacation, and he found a book on the beach called Doomsday Conspiracy, by Sydney Sheldon. Dan Brown realized that he hadn't read any contemporary, commercial fiction since he was young and read The Hardy Boys, so he decided to try Doomsday Conspiracy. He said, "I read the first page … and then the next … and then the next. Several hours later, I finished the book and thought, 'Hey, I can do that.'" So he went home and started writing, beginning with articles and small projects, but in the back of his head he was trying to think of a premise for a thriller.

He went back to New Hampshire to visit Exeter, and while he was there, one of the students was detained by the U.S. Secret Service because of a political comment he made in an e-mail to a friend. It was the early days of e-mail, and Dan Brown was amazed that Secret Service was able to access that sort of information. So he did some research on the CIA, and that led to research on the National Security Agency, and he said, "The more I learned about this ultra-secret agency and the fascinating moral issues surrounding national security and civilian privacy, the more I realized it could be a great backdrop for a novel." So he started writing, and a couple of years later, he published his first novel, Digital Fortress (1998), about a cryptographer for the NSA. He kept writing thrillers: Angels & Demons (2000), set in Vatican City and centered around a secret society called the Illuminati; and Deception Point (2001), about a team of scientists and intelligence agents searching for extraterrestrial life in the Arctic.

And then he wrote his most famous book, The Da Vinci Code (2003). He heard a theory that there were secret messages in Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper, and he started to construct an elaborate plot involving a character he had already written about in Angels and Demons, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. The plot was complex, so he figured out the details while he went jogging every morning. He said, "I would go running with a Dictaphone and discuss the plot aloud with myself. I felt like a juggler who was trying to keep 13 balls in the air simultaneously. Imagine if someone had found the Dictaphone. They would have heard a panting guy talking about Rome and Mary Magdalene's child and assassinations — and would have turned it in to the police!" But Dan Brown took those ideas and wrote The Da Vinci Code, and it became an international best seller, with 81 million copies in print.

This September, Doubleday will publish Dan Brown's newest novel featuring Robert Langdon: The Lost Symbol.

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Octavia Butler, (books by this author) born in Pasadena, California (1947). Her father was a shoe shiner who died when she was a baby, and her mother worked as a maid. Octavia was raised by her mother, grandmother, and numerous other relatives. She said that she was "a perennial out-kid," tall for her age, awkward, bad at sports, comfortable with adults but shy around kids. She was teased and bullied. She started writing when she was 10 years old. She said, "I began with horse stories, because I was crazy over horses, even though I never got near one. At 11, I was writing romances, and I'm happy to say I didn't know any more about romance than I did about horses. When I was 12 … I was watching this godawful movie on television. … It was one of those where the beautiful Martian arrives on Earth and announces that all the men on Mars have died and they need more men. None of the Earthmen want to go! And I thought, 'Geez, I can write a better story than that.' I got busy writing." And she went on to become a best-selling and critically acclaimed science fiction writer, one of the only African-American women in a field that is so dominated by white men. In 1995, she received the McArthur "genius" grant — the first science fiction writer to do so. She's the author of many books, including Patternmaster (1976), Parable of the Sower (1993), Kindred (1979), and Fledgling (2005).

It's the birthday of novelist Erich Maria Remarque, (books by this author) born in Osnabrück, Germany (1898). Remarque was training to be an elementary school teacher, but he was drafted into the German army in WWI. He was wounded in battle and spent most of the war in bed recuperating, but he went on to write the greatest novel about WWI: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). It begins: "We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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