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Poem: "The School" by David Huddle from Summer Lake: New & Selected Poems, © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission.

The School

On one side the high school, on the other
grades one through seven, the purple-curtained
auditorium shrank and grew shabbier
each August we came back. Mr. Whitt one year
decided Charles Tomlinson, Slick King, Dwayne
Burchett, Bobby Peaks, and Big Face Cather
could be a basketball team. They practiced
on a rocky, red-dirt court with a basket
and some boards on a post. They drove to games
—always at the other school—in Slick's Ford.
Uniforms were jeans and T-shirts. Big Face
and Bobby played barefoot. They lost by scores
like ten to ninety-three, unaccustomed to such space,
wooden floors, lights, adults calling them names.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the fortieth President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, born in Tampico, Illinois (1911). His father suffered from alcoholism. Reagan was eleven years old when he first came upon his father drunk and passed out on the front porch. Reagan wrote about the incident in his 1965 memoir Where's the Rest of Me. He said, "That was my first moment of taking responsibility. ... I bent over him, smelling the sharp odor of whiskey from the speakeasy. I got a fistful of his overcoat. Opening the door, I managed to drag him inside and get him to bed. In a few days, he was the bluff, hearty man I knew and loved and will always remember."

Reagan learned the art of improvisation in school as a result of his nearsightedness. He couldn't see the blackboard, even sitting in the front row, but he said, "I bluffed my lessons and got fairly good marks, considering."

He went on to use this talent at his first job out of college as a radio announcer for the Chicago Cubs. Reagan moved from broadcasting to a job as an actor in B movies. By the mid-1950s his career as an actor had stalled but he was slowly growing more interested in politics.

He became a Republican in 1962, and in 1964 the Republican Party asked him to give a half-hour address at the convention to nominate Barry Goldwater. The speech was so good that a group of Republicans got together and persuaded Reagan to run for governor of California.

It was the first time that a Hollywood celebrity had used his media savvy and name recognition to start a career in politics. When Reagan won his governor's race he was asked what he planned to do as governor. He said, "I don't know. I've never played a governor."

It's the birthday of lexicographer and writer Eric Partridge, born in Poverty Bay, New Zealand (1894). He served as a soldier in the Australian infantry during World War I, and he was fascinated by the ways soldiers used language, constantly making up new words and phrases. His early articles about slang were popular enough that he was able to write his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937).

It's the birthday of poet Victor Hernandez Cruz, born in Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico (1954). He went on to become an important member of the group of writers known as the Nuyorican poets—poets from Puerto Rico who grew up in New York City and who write about the blending of the two cultures. Cruz said, "I write from the center of a culture which is not on its native soil, a culture in flight, living half the time on memories. ... I write about the city with an agonizing memory of a lush tropical silence."

It was on this day in 1937 that John Steinbeck published his novel Of Mice and Men, the story of two migrant farm workers, George Milton and his simple-minded friend, Lennie Small, who dream of owning their own place and living off the fat of the land.

Steinbeck had worked as a farmhand to pay for his tuition in college and later took various manual labor jobs in California to support himself as a writer. He published two novels that had some success, Tortilla Flat (1935) and In Dubious Battle (1936), but they were written almost as journalism. He wanted to write something about migrant workers that was more like a parable or a myth.

He also wanted his fiction to reach the very workers he was writing about, and he knew that many poor farm workers were illiterate. He had seen theater troupes performing for farm-labor camps and he got the idea that he could write a novel that was made up almost entirely of dialogue so that it could also be produced as a play.

He had almost finished his first draft of the novel when his dog tore the manuscript to shreds. He eventually rewrote the novel and it was published on this day in 1937. The play was produced soon after, and both the novel and the play were huge successes.

Of Mice and Men has remained one of Steinbeck's most popular novels and it's been made into a movie three times, in 1939, 1981, and 1992.

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Poem: "Reading History a Year at a Time" by Joan McIntosh from Greatest Hits: 1975-2000. © Pudding House Publications. Reprinted with permission.

Reading History a Year at a Time

Lord Byron died the very year
that sperm were proved,
beyond all doubt, to be
essential to fertilization.
No more virgin births. That year
Beethoven's Choral Symphony
astounded the air. He was guided
gently to face the audience
that rose in an ovation
he couldn't hear. Tears
were everywhere. Who remembers
J.L. Prevost or J.B. Dumas
or knows how they unraveled
the mystery of sperm? That same year
workers finished the Erie Canal
and Simon Bolivar was proclaimed
Emperor of Peru. The canal workers
didn't know or care about Peru
nor did they hear the "Ode to Joy."
My great-great grandmother was born
that year, to later travel the length
of the canal. Three hundred million
sperm swim up the birth canal.
A few thousand reach the oviduct.
The ovum chooses one (on rare
occasions more). Then, as usual,
life went on. Joseph Aspdin developed
Portland Cement while the U.S.
House elected John Quincy Adams when
The voters couldn't make up their minds.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1964 that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr arrived in the United States for their first American tour. Up until that point the Beatles had been largely a British phenomenon. At the beginning of that year the Beatles had gone on their first international tour, to France, where everybody hated them. The French critics wrote terrible reviews, the concerts were poorly attended and there were no screaming fans.

Then, on January 10, 1964, the Beatles got word that their song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" had reached number one on the American pop charts. No British musical artist had ever reached number one on the American charts before. By January 13, 10,000 copies of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" were being sold every hour in New York City alone. In less than three weeks it had sold 1.5 million copies, more than any other record single at that point in history. So naturally, the Beatles' manager decided to get them out of France and over to America.

When their plane landed at John F. Kennedy Airport on this day in 1964 there were four thousand fans waiting to meet them. Two nights later they made their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. The audience screamed so loudly that the music could barely be heard.

The Beatles ended their first tour in the United States on February 22. By the end of February, sixty percent of the records being sold in the United States were Beatles records.

It's the birthday of the novelist Charles Dickens who was born in Portsmouth, England (1812). His father struggled with debts throughout Dickens' childhood. Dickens was twelve years old when his parents decided he could help the family financially if he took a job at Warren's Blacking Company, a manufacturer of boot blacking that was run by a friend of the family. Dickens' parents saw it as an opportunity for him to work his way up in the business world, but Dickens saw it as a prison sentence. He had to work ten hours a day pasting labels on the jars of boot polish.

A few days after he started the job Dickens' father was arrested for debt. Dickens was devastated. He decided that he would do whatever it took to make sure that he was never poor again. In his spare time he began writing sketches of the people imprisoned with his father and then began to write about other ordinary people on the streets of London, the cabdrivers, shoe shiners, pickpockets and clowns.

Dickens eventually got a job as a journalist and then began writing fiction. He invented the idea of selling his novels in serial installments which proved enormously successful. Within a few years, he had become the most popular novelist in the English-speaking world with novels such as The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1838), The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

He was one of the first authors to go on huge international book tours. One of the people who went to see Dickens perform when he came to America was Mark Twain. Twain wrote, "That fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him a comical Scotch-terrier look about the face. ... But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty ... as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it ... that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions ... murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work."

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, born Laura Ingalls near Pepin, Wisconsin (1867). When she was sixty-three years old she started writing about her pioneer childhood in books such as Little House in the Big Woods (1932) and Little House on the Prairie (1935).

When asked why she decided to write these books, she said, "I wanted the children now to understand more about the beginning of things, to know what is behind the things they see—what it is that made America as they know it."

It's the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). He's best known for his novel Main Street, which was a literary sensation when it came out in 1920. No one had ever written such a fierce attack on small-town American life. The town of Sauk Centre, which Lewis had satirized in Main Street, now holds a festival every summer called Sinclair Lewis Days. The town also has a museum called the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center and a street called Sinclair Lewis Avenue.

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Poem: "Sonnet" by Elizabeth Bishop from The Complete Poems: 1937-1971. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission.


I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1587 that Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle in England after she was implicated in a plot to murder her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I.

Mary had never been a passionate Catholic, but when she was told of her execution she decided that for her final act, she would turn herself into a Catholic martyr. Her execution was to take place at 8:00 A.M. on this day in 1587 and so she awoke at 6:00, and her servants dressed her entirely in black, except for a white veil, applied her makeup and put on her wig. She then knelt and prayed until the sheriff knocked on the door telling her it was time to go.

She was led to the scaffold carrying a white crucifix and a Latin prayer book. When the prayers were finished Mary turned to her executioner and said, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles." She was forced to kneel and to place her head on the chopping block, and she continued to pray in Latin, saying, "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," until the moment of her death.

It's the birthday of the novelist Kate Chopin, born Katherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri (1851). She married a wealthy owner of a cotton business and lived with him in New Orleans. But after her husband suddenly died of a fever, a rumor got out that she'd been having an affair with a married neighbor. The town turned against her and she eventually moved back to St. Louis to live with her mother.

It was there that Chopin first began to write. She had six children to take care of, so she wrote on a lapboard in the living room while her children played around her. Because she was so busy, she tried to write as quickly as she could. In less than ten years she produced three novels and more than a hundred short stories.

Chopin's early work was melodramatic and sentimental, but everything changed when she first read the French writer Guy de Maupassant. She wrote, "Here was a man who had escaped from tradition and authority, who had entered into himself and looked out upon life through his own being and with his own eyes ... [who wrote] without the plots, the old fashioned mechanism and stage trapping that in a vague, unthinking way I had fancied were essential to the art of story making."

Chopin began to write more explicitly about dissatisfied wives and marital infidelity. Then she published The Awakening (1899) about a woman who leaves her husband and her children to have an affair and become an artist and then eventually commits suicide by swimming out to sea. It was one of the first novels ever written by a woman about a woman committing adultery and it was almost universally attacked by critics. The St. Louis literary community refused to review the novel at all and libraries and bookstores in Chopin's hometown wouldn't stock the book. Chopin was unable to publish her next book of short stories and she died five years later, in 1904.

Today, The Awakening is considered one of greatest novels of 19th-century American literature.

It's the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father's family in Massachusetts.

She was painfully shy and quiet in college but during her senior year she mustered up all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking and recipes. Moore became Bishop's mentor and friend.

She was an extremely slow writer and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem "One Art" for more than fifteen years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right. But she was an obsessive letter writer. She once wrote forty letters in a single day. She said, "I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here." A collection of her letters, One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, was published in 1994.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote, "I'd like to retire ... and do nothing, / or nothing much, forever ... / look through binoculars, read boring books, / old, long, long books, and write down useless notes."

It's the birthday of the poet Lisel Mueller, born in Hamburg, Germany (1924). She fled with her family from Nazi Germany when she was a teenager and she spent the rest of her adolescence in Indiana. She learned to love English by memorizing the lyrics to American songs she heard on the radio. She has gone on to write many books of poetry in English including The Need to Hold Still (1980) and Waving from Shore (1989).

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Poem: "It's a Living" by Richard Vargas from McLife: Selected Poems 1978-2004. © Main Street Rag Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

It's a Living

it's called customer service
trying to help my fellow man
make sense of the medical insurance
some slick carpetbagging agent
talked him into buying

there are no easy answers
like today
the guy on the phone
was speaking with restraint
holding on to his dignity
but i know begging when i hear it
his voice cracked as he told me
the doctor tending to his dying wife
was getting phone calls from one
of our case managers
being pressured to get her
released from the hospital

please he said
please ask them to stop
she's in so much pain
my wife my best friend
she's in a lot of pain and
there's nothing they can do
please stop the phone calls

i tell him he's got us mixed up
with someone else
there is no record
of any phone calls
in his wife's file
but i know better

i want to put him on hold
go find the sterile room with
white walls where faceless people
hold jelly donuts gripped
tight in their pudgy hands
as they put dollar signs
on the way we die

i want to stick my head inside
remind them that
sooner or later we all
finish the race
sometimes it ain't too pretty
but in the end
if we're lucky
we'll have the love
of a precious few
maybe the ability to stare
death in the eye
so let this one go
just leave her be

but instead i assure
the guy i'll do my best
to find out what's going on
wait for him to hang up
decide to take my break
10 minutes early

times like this i wish
i'd taken up smoking

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer George Ade, born near Kentland, Indiana (1866). He went to Purdue University and then became a newspaperman in Chicago. Then, in 1897, Ade got the idea to write a series of fables about modern characters using modern American vernacular. The first of these fables was "The Fable of Sister Mae Who Did As Well As Could Be Expected" and it was so popular that he wrote many more collected in his books Fables in Slang (1899) and More Fables (1900). Ade later said, "It was a great lark to write in slang—just like gorging on forbidden fruit."

George Ade also wrote, "A friend who is near and dear may in time become as useless as a relative."

It's the birthday of the playwright and memoirist Brendan Behan, born in Dublin (1923). He grew up in a house fiercely opposed to British rule. His mother was fond of saying, "Burn all things British—except their coal." He got involved with the IRA and as a result spent most of his early life in and out of prison. It was while he was in prison that he wrote his play The Quare Fellow (1954) about a day in the life of group of inmates as they wait for one of their fellow prisoners to be hanged. "Quare fellow" is Irish slang for a condemned man.

Even though The Quare Fellow was successful at the tiny theater where it first came out, none of the major theaters in Dublin would pick it up for fear of controversy. So Behan sent a copy of the play to a theater producer in London and it became big success there.

Behan's autobiography, Borstal Boy (1958) and his play The Hostage (1958) were also big successes, but after that his health declined and he died in 1964, his career having lasted only ten years.

It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Walker, born in Eatonton, Georgia (1944). She grew up the youngest of eight children. She went to Sarah Lawrence College and then took a trip to Africa. When she got back to college she was pregnant and seriously considering suicide. She began writing dozens of poems over the course of a week, barely eating or sleeping, and she shoved all the poems under the door of her poetry teacher, Muriel Rukeyser. Rukeyser showed the poems to her agent and they were eventually published as Alice Walker's first book, Once (1968).

Her first big success was The Color Purple (1982), which spent more than twenty-five weeks on The New York Times best-seller list and went on to win both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Walker was the first black woman ever to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Poem: "Funny Books" by Robert Morgan from The Strange Attractor: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Funny Books

Because my parents had denied
me comic books as sordid and
salacious, I would sneak a look
at those of friends, the bold and bright
slick covers, pages rough as news
and inked in pinks and greens and blues
as cowboys shouted in balloons
and Indian yells were printed on
the clouds. I borrowed books and hid
them in the crib and under shoes
and under bed. The glories of
those hyperbolic zaps and screams
were my illuminated texts,
the chapbook prophets of forbidden
and secret art, the narratives
of quest and conquest in the West,
of Superman and Lash Larue.
The print and pictures cruder than
the catalog were sweeter than
the cake at Bible School. I crouched
in almost dark and swilled the words
that soared in their balloons and bulbs
of grainy breath into my pulse,
into the stratosphere of my
imagination, reaching Mach
and orbit speed, escape velocity
just at the edge of Sputnik's age,
in stained glass windows of the page.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1861 that Jefferson Davis learned that he had been selected as the president of the new Confederate States of America. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Davis had been a senator for the state of Mississippi and in the lead up to the war he had traveled widely in the North and South urging compromise. Though he believed the constitution did give states the right to withdraw from the Union, he personally opposed secession and spoke out against it. But when Abraham Lincoln was elected president Davis knew that the Southern states would secede.

He didn't attend the Confederate Convention in Montgomery, Alabama, and so he was at home, pruning rose bushes with his wife on this day in 1861 when a messenger arrived to give him the news that he had been selected as the president of the new confederate states. His wife, Varina, later wrote that as he read the message his face grew pale. She said, "Reading that telegram he looked so grieved that I feared some evil had befallen our family. After a few minutes he told me like a man might speak of a sentence of death."

It's the birthday of the man who wrote Doctor Zhivago (1957), Boris Pasternak, born in Moscow (1890). His father was a painter and his mother was a famous pianist and they encouraged his love of literature from a young age. His first two books were collections of poetry, A Twin in the Clouds (1914) and Over the Barriers (1917).

At first, he supported the revolutions of 1917 until he began to witness the political persecution and censorship under the government of Stalin. From 1934 to 1943 he published no original work because of his fears of censorship. Instead, he made money by translating writers like Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, Schiller and Goethe since he knew that he wouldn't be punished for publishing translations.

Then, around 1945, Pasternak began to work in secret on his masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel that follows the lives of over sixty characters through the first half of twentieth century Russia. He finally finished it in 1955 and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union to a publisher in Italy.

The novel came out in 1957. It was immediately banned in the Soviet Union but it became an international best-seller, selling seven million copies worldwide. The next year Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but he was forced to refuse it. He spent the last two years of his life living in a writer's colony satisfied with the knowledge that his novel had been published, even if he couldn't see a printed copy. He died in 1960.

Doctor Zhivago was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1987.

Pasternak said, "It is in our power to do but one thing, and that is not to distort the living voice of life."

It's the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, born in Augsburg, Germany (1898). Brecht was an outspoken enemy of Hitler and in 1933 he was forced to go into exile. First he went to Denmark where he wrote an anti-fascist play called Fear and Misery of the Third Reich (1938). Then he came to the United States and settled in Hollywood to write plays and movies. He wrote more than fifty screenplays during his six years in Hollywood but only one of them was accepted: Hangmen Also Die (1943), an anti-Nazi film that came out in the middle of World War II. He later said, "The intellectual isolation [in Hollywood] is enormous. Compared to Hollywood, Svendborg is a world center."

But it was while he was in Hollywood that he wrote his best-known plays, The Life of Galileo (1938), Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1945).

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Poems: "People Who Take Care" by Nancy Henry from Hard. © MuscleHead Press. Reprinted with permission. And "Aurora" by David Bengtson from Broken Lines. © Juniper Books. Reprinted with permission.

People Who Take Care

People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody
people who take care of people
are not worth much
except to people who are
sick, old, helpless, and poor
people who take care of people
are not important to most other people
are not respected by many other people
come and go without much fuss
unless they donít show up
when needed
people who make more money
tell them what to do
never get shit on their hands
never mop vomit or wipe tears
donít stand in danger
of having plates thrown at them
sharing every cold
observing agonies
they cannot tell at home
people who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift
that moves with them from room to room
that keeps them on the floor
sometimes they fill a hollow
no one else can fill
sometimes through the shit
and blood and tears
they go to a beautiful place, somewhere
those clean important people
have never been.


     Today in the paper he reads about a woman named Aurora who
had told her husband, Raymond, that she wanted to be buried with
her beloved car. So Raymond made arrangements with the local
funeral home to purchase a row of fourteen plots, which he believed
to be more than enough for a 1976 Cadillac convertible. And he told
the backhoe operator to dig one long trench the length of those four—
teen plots and plenty wide-a trench with a dirt ramp at one end. For
Raymond, himself, would take the red Cadillac, white top down, for
its last ride from the church to the cemetery, where the pallbearers
would balance the casket across the trunk and backseat.
     On that morning, as the first light spread its white wings across
the horizon, Raymond slipped the key into the ignition, started the
engine, pulled on the headlights, and transported his beloved Aurora
on the back of her favorite car, its golden lights pushing back the
darkness of this long highway.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1778 that Voltaire returned to Paris after living in exile for twenty-eight years in protest against France's religious fanaticism. He was a crusader for human rights and one of the most respected people in Europe.

When he was allowed to return home more than three hundred people came to visit him his first day in the city. One of those visitors was Benjamin Franklin, fresh from helping to lead the revolution in the United States of America. Franklin had brought his grandson with him and asked Voltaire to bless the little boy.

When Voltaire rode in his carriage to the theater to see the premiere of his last play, his carriage could barely move through the streets packed with crowds of his admirers. When he got to the theater the audience cheered him and an actor placed a crown of laurel on his head. Voltaire died two months later. Because of his controversial religious views, the Catholic Church refused to bury him in holy ground, so his body had to be smuggled out of the city and buried in a cemetery run by a liberal priest.

Voltaire's body was moved to the Pantheon in 1791 after the French Revolution. His epitaph reads, "Poet, philosopher, historian, he gave wings to the human spirit and prepared us to be free."

It's the birthday of the writer Joy Williams, born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts (1944). Williams went to college and grad school in the Midwest but she decided she needed to live someplace more mysterious and exotic so she moved to a trailer park in northern Florida surrounded by swamps and alligators and snakes. The result was her first novel, State of Grace (1973), which got great reviews.

Williams has gone on to write many more books, including the novel The Quick and the Dead (2001) and the story collection Honored Guest (2004).

Joy Williams claims that she cannot write unless she's chewing gum. She said, "Big Red is great. Or Wrigley's or Trident, or bubble gum. I'm very faithful to my gum. Some people just chew it for a minute or two. I chew it and chew it and chew it. ... I use it up. I'm a dutiful person."

It's the birthday of novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer, born to Indian parents in Oxford, England (1957). He went to graduate school at Harvard, and during the summers he got a job writing for a budget travel guidebook. He got a job working for Time magazine. His first book, Video Nights in Katmandu, came out in 1988.

Pico Iyer said, "The less conscious one is of being 'a writer,' the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading. Writing should ... be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent ... and writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger."

It's the birthday of novelist Sidney Sheldon, born in Chicago (1917). He's the author of popular novels such as The Sky is Falling (2001) and The Other Side of Midnight (1990). Each of his novels has hit number one on The New York Times best-seller list.

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Poem: "Martha Stewart Living" by Leon Rooke from Hot Poppies. © The Porcupine's Quill. Reprinted with permission.

Martha Stewart Living

A man at the Dominion was looking long and hard
at chicken breasts, first at economy trays
then at smaller portions, finally hefting the smaller
and saying to the woman nudging his rear, 'Do you suppose
these are free-range chickens?' The woman shouldered
him aside. She was in a hurry, she said, and in no mood
for asinine chit-chat. 'But no,' she said, scurrying away,
'I don't suppose those are free-range. I suppose those
are dead chickens.' At which point, or actually about thirty
seconds later, the man said to me, 'Some days I am happy
I never married.'

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, born near Hodgenville, Kentucky (1809). He was raised on farms in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. He had little formal education. As a young man, he left his family to work on a cargo boat that went down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He later described himself as a "friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flat boat."

He settled in the small town of New Salem, Illinois, where he helped manage a general store and worked as a surveyor and postmaster. He joined a debate society and studied to become a lawyer which you could do at the time just by studying the books yourself.

Lincoln ran for the Illinois state legislature in 1832. He lost the 1832 election but won it two years later. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives for eight years, and in 1846 he was elected to the United States Congress.

By 1854 he had become so consumed by his work as a lawyer that he had almost given up on politics. It was then that a Democratic senator from Illinois named Stephen A. Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill which threatened to repeal the restrictions on slavery for some Northern states.

In the summer of 1858, Lincoln decided to run for Congress against Douglas, and challenged him to a series of debates in seven different Illinois cities. The debates attracted huge crowds, and newspapers gave full reports using a recently invented shorthand. Douglas argued that slavery should be allowed as long as that's what a majority of a state's citizens wanted and Lincoln argued for the abolition of slavery on moral grounds.

Lincoln lost the election, but the debates with Douglas gave him the exposure and confidence to run for president two years later and this time he beat out Douglas. He didn't start out as a popular president. People made fun of his physical appearance; he was six feet, four inches tall, skinny, slightly stooped and he wore an old top hat and a coat that was too small for him. People called him a snake, a pretzel, an oversized frog.

But he was a great public speaker. He would write sentences and paragraphs as they came to him, on small scraps of paper and then copy them out when he thought he had enough material. Most other public speakers at the time wrote flowery speeches that went on longer than they had to but Lincoln's were always plain-spoken and to the point.

He looked awkward and people who heard him called his voice "shrill" and "squeaking," but he spoke with authority and grace. He said in his first inaugural address, "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. ... We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln said, "A capacity, and taste, for reading, gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others. It is the key, or one of the keys, to the already solved problems. And not only so. It gives relish, and facility, for successfully pursuing the [yet] unsolved ones.



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