Oct. 22, 2014


by Harvey Shapiro

I am still on a rooftop in Brooklyn
on your holy day. The harbor is before me,
Governor's Island, the Verrazano Bridge
and the Narrows. I keep in my head
what Rabbi Nachman said about the world
being a narrow bridge and that the important thing
is not to be afraid. So on this day
I bless my mother and father, that they be
not fearful where they wander. And I
ask you to bless them and before you
close your Book of Life, your Sefer Hachayim,
remember that I always praised your world
and your splendor and that my tongue
tried to say your name on Court Street in Brooklyn.
Take me safely through the Narrows to the sea.

"Psalm" by Harvey Shapiro, from A Momentary Glory. © Wesleyan Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1879, Thomas Edison tested the first successful electric light bulb. The inventor had set up a laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876. He worked long hours there — 16 or 18 hours at a stretch, sometimes — and credited his success to the fact that he never had a clock in the lab. But it wasn't "all work and no play" for Tom Edison; in addition to a wide variety of chemicals and equipment, the lab was also home to a pipe organ, at which Edison would sit and play, rallying his fellow scientists with beer and music through the wee hours.

Edison didn't invent electric lights; they already existed, but they were too bright to be used inside the home, so people used gaslights instead. These weren't optimal, because they flickered, and their open flames could be hazardous. So Edison sat down to combine what he knew about electricity with what he knew about gas lights. He knew he would have to come up with a bulb of some kind, and fixtures, and a way to get the electricity from the outdoor power lines into people's homes, so he invented all of those things. Surprisingly, the most difficult part of all of this inventing was the tiny little filament inside the light bulb. Edison needed something that would glow when heated with electricity, but wouldn't burn up quickly. He tested more than 1,600 different materials, including fishing line, coconut fibers, and even beard hair. He had some success with a platinum wire, but platinum was too expensive to use on a large scale, so he tried a carbonized cotton fiber. The bulb produced light for 14 and a half hours, the longest time to date. Eventually, Edison perfected his filament by using bamboo fiber, which lasted for 1,200 hours, and that was the material he used for the next 10 years.

When asked how he persisted despite 10,000 failures, Edison reportedly answered; "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."

It's the birthday of virtuoso pianist and composer Franz Liszt, born in Raiding, Hungary (1811). He invented the idea of the piano recital, and toured the world performing some of the most complex piano music ever written. He's well known for his Symphonic Poem #3, "Les Préludes."

It's the birthday of John Reed (books by this author), born in Portland, Oregon (1887). He's best known for the book Ten Days That Shook The World (1922), about the Russian Revolution in 1917.

It's the birthday of novelist and columnist John Gould (books by this author), born in Brighton, Massachusetts (1908). Gould and his wife settled in Lisbon Falls, Maine, on the farm where his great-grandfather had homesteaded. In the 1960s, Gould was working as the editor of the Lisbon Enterprise, and one day the local high school called him up and said they were sending over a student who had gotten in trouble; the student was supposed to be the editor of the school paper, but he was so bored by the job that he had written and published a satirical version called The Village Vomit, mocking all his teachers. As punishment, the school ordered him to go work at the Enterprise and find out what real newspaper work was like. The first day, Gould taught the young man how to shape up his writing and get rid of unnecessary words. The student later said: "Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out." That high schooler was Stephen King. King wrote later: "This editor was the man who taught me everything I know about writing in 10 minutes."

In 1942, Gould wrote his first weekly column for The Christian Science Monitor, and he continued that column for more than 60 years, until his death in 2003. He wrote about baseball, nighttime sleigh rides, fly fishing, a 100-year-old woman riding on a fire truck for the first time, his mother's homeland of Prince Edward Island, molasses cookies, and how you should never forget to tell your bees if there has been a birth, wedding, or death in your family.

One of his earliest books, Farmer Takes a Wife (1945), was a big best-seller. He went on to write 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Fastest Hound Dog in the State of Maine (1953) and Tales from Rhapsody Home; Or, What They Don't Tell You about Senior Living (2000).

It's the birthday of Doris Lessing (books by this author), born in Kermanshah, Iran (1919). She grew up in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, on her parents' maize farm. She dropped out of school when she was 14 and taught herself, reading all the classic novels she could find. She got married and had two children, but realized that the life of a housewife and mother was not for her. She was excited by Communist ideals and joined the Left Book Club, a group of radical thinkers and writers. She met her second husband in that group, and they had a son together. She said: "That was a political marriage and didn't count. We were so unsuited that, in fact, we behaved very well towards each other. It is easier if you have absolutely nothing in common because you know there is no point in discussing things." She realized that Communism was not for her, any more than being a housewife had been. At the age of 30, she moved to London, leaving behind her second husband as well as her first two children. She said: "There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother." She didn't know what she would do in England, or how she would afford to live on her own, but she knew she had to leave.

She arrived in London in the spring of 1949 with her young son, £20, and the manuscript for her first novel, The Grass Is Singing. She said: "London was unpainted and gray and flat. The coffee was undrinkable. The food was unspeakable. And the clothes were ghastly. I was very excited to be there for cultural reasons. But the war had created a frame of mind which now is very hard to put yourself back into. Nobody cared about having any money, because nobody had any money."

The Grass Is Singing (1950) was quickly accepted for publication. She continued to publish successful novels, including Martha Quest (1952), The Golden Notebook (1962), and The Four-Gated City (1969). Then she published a series of five science fiction novels, the Canopus in Argos books (1979-1983). The critics were scornful of Lessing's new genre, but she said, "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time." She felt as though critics just wanted her to publish The Golden Notebook over and over again, which had now been labeled as a feminist classic, a label she rejected.

So after publishing her science fiction cycle, Lessing decided to conduct an experiment — she described her motives as "frankly if faintly malicious." She wanted to show how hard it was for new writers to break into the literary scene. She returned to realism and wrote The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could ... (1984), two books in the vein of The Golden Notebook, but she published them under the pseudonym Jane Somers. The books were rejected by her longtime British publisher, and when they were finally published, they went mostly unnoticed and sold just a few thousand copies combined. She said, "If the books had come out in my name, they would have sold a lot of copies and reviewers would have said, 'Oh, Doris Lessing, how wonderful.'"

Lessing published more than 50 books over her long career, including The Good Terrorist (1985), The Fifth Child (1988), Under My Skin (1994), The Sweetest Dream (2001), and Alfred and Emily (2008). She won the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature.

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