Oct. 4, 2014

The Story of Ferdinand the Bull

by Matt Mason

Dad would come home after too long at work
and I'd sit on his lap to hear
the story of Ferdinand the Bull; every night,
me handing him the red book until I knew
every word, couldn't read,
just recite along with drawings
of a gentle bull, frustrated matadors,
the all-important bee, and flowers—
flowers in meadows and flowers
thrown by the Spanish ladies.
Its lesson, really,
about not being what you're born into
but what you're born to be,
even if that means
not caring about the capes they wave in your face
or the spears they cut into your shoulders.
And Dad, wonderful Dad, came home
after too long at work
and read to me
the same story every night
until I knew every word, couldn't read,
just recite.

"The Story of Ferdinand the Bull" by Matt Mason, from The Baby That Ate Cincinnati. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1535, the first complete modern English translation of the Bible was printed. It's known as the Coverdale Bible because it was compiled and printed by Myles Coverdale, an English priest who was living on the Continent at the time; he would later go on to become Bishop of Exeter. He didn't speak Greek or Hebrew, so he used a variety of sources, including William Tyndale's New Testament and several of his Old Testament books, as well as the Latin Vulgate and German translations by Martin Luther. Coverdale dedicated the translation to England's King Henry VIII — whom he called "a better defender of the faith than the pope himself," and his "dearest just wyfe and most vertuous Pryncesse, Queen Anne [Boleyn]."

It's the birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer (books by this author), born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862). He's known as the man who created the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, the Rover Boys, and Nancy Drew. He was the son of a tobacconist, and wrote his first story on a piece of packing paper. It was published, and he began a career writing adventure stories for children, and became one of the most successful children's book authors of his day.

After writing about 150 books of his own, he created a company called the Stratemeyer Syndicate with a team of ghostwriters to write books based on his outlines. He swore everyone to secrecy and even invented fictional biographies for the pseudonymous authors. The Stratemeyer Syndicate went on to publish about 700 titles under more than 65 pseudonyms.

In 1926, the American Library Association sponsored a survey of juvenile reading preferences, asking 36,000 children in 34 different cities about their favorite books; 98 percent of those children responded with a Stratemeyer title. The Stratemeyer Syndicate still sells about 6 million books each year.

Today is the 100th birthday of Brendan Gill (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1914. The longtime New Yorker contributor also wrote 15 books: biographies, social histories, fiction, criticism, and poetry. He was a man of letters, and a man about town — literally. When he wasn't writing, he was leading architectural walking tours of New York City and campaigning to save the city's historic buildings.

Gill failed all his college entrance exams, but he nevertheless got into Yale after his prep school headmaster assured the admissions office that Gill's father could afford to foot the bill for the lad's education. Fresh out of college, Gill went to work for The New Yorker in 1936. He later recalled being star-struck by the famous Algonquin Round Table: "At 22, I was eager to be thought one of them, so around lunchtime I would hasten into the lobby with the look of fearing to be late to an important engagement, circle the clusters of people seated drinking there and then slip away to a nearby cafeteria for a grilled cheese on rye. In that brief deceitful circuit, what gods and goddesses I encountered! H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan, Julie Haydon, Ina Claire, Benchley, Thurber, Alajalov, Arno — my eyes rolled in my head like marbles."

He wrote for The New Yorker for more than six decades, anonymously contributing "Talk of the Town" pieces at first, and later penning his own column, "Skyline." He was hired by Harold Ross, the magazine's founder, and he's one of the few writers to have worked under the magazine's first four editors. In 1975, he published a best-selling memoir of his long career with the magazine, called Here at the New Yorker. Not everyone liked it, and he received public criticism from his colleague E.J. Kahn, as well as Nora Ephron, who called it one of the most offensive books she'd read in a long time. But it seemed Gill had expected the criticism, because early in the book, he wrote, "The ingenuities we practice in order to appear admirable to ourselves would suffice to invent the telephone twice over on a rainy summer morning."

The year before his death, Gill published Late Bloomers (1996), a book about people who achieved success later in life. The list of his subjects is long — 75 of them, including Thelonious Monk, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad, and Coco Chanel — but their biographies are short, at only 287 words each. Gill claimed the qualities common to late bloomers are "energy, high intelligence, and discipline," although talent factors into the success of writers and artists. "Talent is usually innate," he told the Chicago Tribune. "There's nothing you can do about that, but you can practice discipline and make use of your high energy. [...] You have to be a personality who wants to leap out of bed in the morning and start running at top speed, and that's the way a lot of people in the arts have been." And although no one could label Gill a late bloomer, he attributed his own success to his energy and positive outlook. "I never get depressed," he said. "I really do wake up every morning thinking something wonderful is about to take place — and the likelihood that such a thing is going to happen at 81 is fairly remote. But in emotional terms I'm like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There was never any dark night of the soul with him at all."

Gill had very strong ideas about his own memorial service, insisting that speakers should be chosen based on their public speaking ability, not on how well they knew him. After his death in 1997, 1,500 people attended his memorial, and it was followed by a reception at Grand Central Terminal, one of the many landmark New York buildings Gill had worked tirelessly to save.

It's the birthday of Roy Blount Jr. (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941) and raised in Decatur, Georgia. He's been a freelance writer for more than a hundred different publications, and he's the author of more than 20 books, on subjects from "the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking." He's also a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up entirely of authors.

His latest book is Alphabetter Juice: or, The Joy of Text (2011).

Roy Blount Jr. said: "Language seems to me intrinsically comic — noises of the tongue, lips, larynx, and palate rendered in ink on paper with the deepest and airiest thoughts in mind and the harshest and tenderest feelings at heart."

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




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