MONDAY, 4 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "To be of use" by Marge Piercy from Circles on the Water. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Labor Day. The first Labor Day was celebrated one hundred and twenty-four years ago, on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday was the idea of the Central Labor Union in New York City, which organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders. It was intended to celebrate labor unions and to recognize the achievements of the American worker.

On that first Labor Day, twenty thousand workers crowded the streets in a parade up Broadway. They carried banners that said, "Labor creates all wealth," and "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation!" After the parade, people held picnics all over the city. They ate Irish stew, homemade bread, and apple pie. When it got dark, fireworks went off over the skyline. The celebrations became more popular across the country in the next ten years. In 1894, Congress made Labor Day a national holiday.

Today, for most Americans, Labor Day marks the end of summer and the last day before the start of the school year.


It was on this day in 1886 that Geronimo, the last major Native American military leader to fight against the U.S., surrendered in Arizona. Geronimo wasn't ever officially a chief. He was a medicine man. But after his mother, wife, and children were killed by Mexican troops, he joined leading raiding parties, attacking Mexican and American settlers in the Southwest.

By the early 1880s, the Apaches had largely been defeated by American troops. Their chief, Cochise, was dead, and the U.S. government forced them to live on a barren reservation in San Carlos, Arizona. As a last-ditch effort, Geronimo organized a group of warriors to fight one last war of resistance. He fought for five years, and many military historians believe he was one of the most brilliant guerilla warfare strategists in history.

For the final five months, Geronimo led a band of only thirty-seven men, pursued by five thousand soldiers, one quarter of the entire U.S. military. Geronimo kept eluding capture. His men left no footprints because they walked only on rocks.

But Geronimo and his men finally got tired of living in the mountains, and so they surrendered on this day in 1886 to General Nelson Miles in a place called Skeleton Canyon.

Geronimo was essentially a prisoner of war for the rest of his life, but he became something of a celebrity. He made a living by selling the buttons off his jacket and autographed photos of himself, and he appeared at an exhibit at the St Louis World's Fair in 1904. He never saw Arizona again. Much of the land that he fought the Americans for remains uninhabited today.


It's the birthday of the novelist Richard Wright, (books by this author) born in Roxie, Mississippi (1908). He's the author of Native Son (1940), the first best-selling novel by an African-American writer. It tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man who gets hired by his slum lord, Mr. Dalton, to work as a chauffeur. Bigger catches the eye of Mr. Dalton's freethinking daughter Mary, but when he takes Mary out on the town, she gets so drunk that he has to carry her home. He helps her into bed, but when she begins to make noise, he is terrified that he'll be caught with her, so he covers her mouth with a pillow, and accidentally smothers her to death. He tries to cover up the murder by burning Mary's body in the furnace, but after fleeing police he is eventually caught and put on trial for murder and sentenced to death.

While working on the book, Wright told friends that he didn't think it would ever be published. But once he toned down some of the more explicitly sexual scenes from the novel, it became a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection and sold 215,000 copies in three weeks.




TUESDAY, 5 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Greenhouse" by Paul Hostovsky from Bird in the Hand. © Grayson Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Greenhouse

My Aunt Ellie lived in a green-
house. This was in Irvington
New Jersey. A Jew alone
is a Jew in danger, her husband
said. Their daughter, my cousin,
wanted to go where she wanted
to go. They said it was a big
mistake. In a greenhouse you
cultivate certain delicate
non-indigenous plants. The house
was green and my cousin fell
deeply in love with a black man.
When she married him her father
sat shiva for her, meaning that
he mourned her for dead. But
she was only living over in East
Orange. She had two beautiful
daughters who never knew
their grandfather on their mother's
side. Because she was dead to him
until the day he died. That was the day
we all went over to Aunt Ellie's house
where she was sitting shiva. We met
my cousin's husband Toe, for the first time,
and their two daughters, Leah and Aleesha.
And we opened all the windows in
the greenhouse on that day, for outside
it was a beautiful spring day and we
broke out the expensive delicate china
from Germany which they kept locked up
in a glass breakfront in the hall.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1957 that Jack Kerouac's book On the Road was published (books by this author). His inspiration for the book came ten years earlier. He was living in New York City with his mother, trying to write his first novel, when he met a drifter named Neal Cassady, an ex-convict from Denver who had actually been born in a car, and who became a car thief when he was fourteen years old. By the time Kerouac met him, Cassady had stolen more than five hundred cars and had been arrested ten times. Kerouac later wrote, "All my other current friends were intellectuals ... [but Cassady] was a wild yea-saying overburst of American Joy."

Kerouac and Cassady became close friends, but Cassady eventually had to move back to Denver. Kerouac wanted to follow him. He started reading histories of the great American migrations out west. He studied maps of the new highways that ran all the way from the East Cost to California. He was particularly attracted to Route 6, drawn in a red line on his map, which led from Cape Cod to Los Angeles. He made up his mind to follow it all the way to Denver, where he could meet up with Neal Cassady. He scraped up enough money for the journey and set out in July of 1947.

Kerouac's journey did not start out well. He rode a trolley to the edge of Yonkers and then hoped to hitchhike the rest of the way across the country. But when he reached Route 6, at the border of Connecticut, he got caught in a rain storm and there were no cars to pick him up. He finally gave up, made his way back to New York, and used almost all his money to buy a bus ticket to Chicago.

He had better luck hitchhiking once he got outside of Chicago. When he crossed the Mississippi River, he began to feel that he was really part of the American West. In Omaha, he was amazed to see his first real cowboy, a man in boots and a ten-gallon hat. He rode all the way from Nebraska to Wyoming on the back of a flatbed truck with a group of hobos. He saw the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains for the first time.

When he finally made it to Denver, he met up with Cassady and his old friend Allen Ginsberg, and the three of them partied for weeks. Kerouac eventually moved on to San Francisco, where he worked odd jobs for a while. He finally took a bus back to New York City in October, and he was so broke that he had to panhandle for bus fare to get to his mom's house in Ozone Park.

Kerouac knew he wanted to use the experience for a novel, but he struggled with various fictional plotlines: a man in search of his father, a convict in search of his runaway daughter, a young man in search of his lost love, and so forth. He finally figured out how to write the book after receiving a series rambling letters from Cassady, one of which was 40,000 words long. He realized the novel had to be written about Cassady and in Cassady's own voice, which Kerouac described as "all first person, fast, mad, confessional ... with spew and rush, without halt, all unified and molten flow; no boring moments, everything significant and interesting, sometimes breathtaking in speed and brilliance."

So, in April of 1951, Kerouac sat down at his kitchen table, wound a continuous roll of paper into a typewriter, turned on an all-night Harlem jazz radio station, and in twenty days wrote the first draft of his new novel. The text was single-spaced, with no commas or paragraph breaks. Kerouac showed it to various publishers but they all turned him down.

He spent the next several years working on other novels, but finally in 1957, he decided to revise his novel to make it more acceptable, with paragraph breaks and normal punctuation. He went through many different titles, including "Souls on the Road," "American Road Night," "Home and the Road," "Love on the Road," and "Along the Wild Road," until he finally chose the simplest title: On the Road.

On the Road came out on this day in 1957, and a great review appeared in The New York Times. It became a best-seller at the time, and it still sells about 100,000 copies a year.




WEDNESDAY, 6 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Little Sisters" by Sonia Gernes from What You Hear in the Dark: New and Selected Poems. © University of Notre Dame Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Little Sisters

This birthday I have reached the age
where my mother bore
the last of her dead daughters—
one that was whisked away
before its first clean cry
could scour the naked room, the later two
a blue that refused to brighten.

"Baby Girl, Infant Daughter of ..."
the little markers said
and I listened from behind the stove
in her last pregnancy,
watched her body swell and sag,
knew from the shape
of those whispered words
that something was amiss—
she was weighted already
with two small stones.

Summer mornings I called them forth—
the little sisters I had never seen—
made them faces
from the old ache
in the air above the garden,
hair like mine
from the grassy space
where root crops should have been.

I learned of blood tests, transfusions,
the factor called Rh,
my little sisters
dreaming their aquatic days
on lethal ropes, my mother
almost dead.

Now at the kitchen table
lighting candles on a cake,
I am empty-handed,
empty-wombed,
no daughters to give her
as she counts again
my miraculous birth,
fourth and forceps-born,
her last survivor in that war
of blood with family blood.

I reach for her hand and hold it,
but there are spaces here,
tender lacunae we cannot fold away.
Still somewhere the hand-stitched garments,
the gingham quilts, the counting game.
Still the soot-smudged corner
where I crouched beneath the stovepipe
and fingered like a rosary
the small pebbles of their names.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Alice Sebold, (books by this author) born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She grew up wanting to be a writer, and went to Syracuse University, where some of the best writers in America were teaching, including Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. But one night during her freshman year of college, Sebold was walking home when she was attacked, dragged into an underground tunnel, and raped. She thought that she was going to be murdered. When she later talked to the police, they said that a girl had recently been murdered in that same tunnel, and so she should consider herself lucky for having survived.

A few weeks later, Sebold spotted the rapist on the street, and she went to the police. He was arrested, and Sebold testified against him at trial. She was subjected to a brutal cross-examination by the defense attorney, and police later said that she was one of the best rape witnesses they had ever seen on the stand. The rapist was convicted and received the maximum sentence.

Sebold thought that the end of the trial would put the experience behind her, but for the next fifteen years she struggled to have relationships with other people, and she struggled to write. She tried going to graduate school and dropped out. She moved to New York and started drinking a lot and dabbling in drugs.

She decided a change of scenery might help, so she moved to California, and got a job as a caretaker of an arts colony, where she lived in a cabin without electricity, reading and writing at night by propane light. In the back of her mind she'd always thought about what those policeman had said to her about that other girl who had been murdered in that same tunnel. One day, Sebold sat down at her desk and began writing a story in the voice of a teenage girl who has been murdered, and in one sitting she wrote the entire opening of what would become her novel The Lovely Bones, about a murdered fourteen-year-old girl looking down from heaven as her family tries to recover from the grief of her death.

Sebold's agent had a hard time selling the novel, since most publishers were wary about a book narrated by a dead girl. But it was eventually picked up by Little, Brown, and it became a word-of-mouth sensation among booksellers and critics before it was even published. It came out in June of 2002, a few months before Sebold's thirty-ninth birthday. It sold more than 2 million copies, becoming the best-selling book in 2002.

Sebold has said in interviews that she was as surprised by the book's success as anyone. She said, "It's very weird to succeed at thirty-nine years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted anyway."

Sebold is also the author of the memoir Lucky (1999).




THURSDAY, 7 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "People Who Live Near the Hospital" by Tina Kelley from The Gospel of Galore. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

People Who Live Near the Hospital

Sick ones and survivors look down and see
real life going on, presumably unscarred,
the tricycle on the lawn, the garage door open,
the truck on the highway going under
the overpass, emerging on.

From the solarium window the scene below
looks fragile, cinematic and deaf,
a model railroad, an oasis of health,
the people there unknowingly blessed
by the wishes of those who wait.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1940 that the German Luftwaffe began dropping bombs on London, in what became known as the London Blitz. On the first night, 600 German bombers came in waves, dropping explosive and incendiary devices over East London. St. Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace, Piccadilly, and the House of Commons were all hit. And that was just the first night.

Over the next eight months, Nazis dropped tens of thousands of bombs on the city. At one point during the bombing raids, Germans attacked every night for fifty-seven consecutive nights. In addition to London, they bombed fifteen other British cities. By the end, more than 30,000 Londoners had been killed, and more than 100,000 houses were destroyed.

But the British people were remarkably resilient. Many of them went about their lives as normally as they could. Most refused to take shelter anywhere other than in their homes. After one of the bombing raids, which had destroyed more than twenty houses, Winston Churchill went to see the wreckage. He found little Union Jack flags already planted in the ruins. The people in the neighborhood cheered when they saw him. Afterward he said, "'I was completely undermined, and wept."


It was on this day in 1927 that a man named Philo T. Farnsworth transmitted the first ever all-electronic television picture in history. Farnsworth had gotten the idea for television when he was just fourteen, living on a potato farm in Idaho. His high school science teacher had gotten him interested in electricity, and he studied electrical engineering in his spare time. One day, he was tilling a potato field, walking with the horse back and forth, when he suddenly had a vision of a machine that could break an image down, line by line, and then reconstruct it on a screen.

Several years later, he got some investors together and set up a laboratory in San Francisco. And it was there, on this day, that he pointed his Image Dissector at a picture of a single line and turned on the receiver, which showed the same picture of a single line. Farnsworth then rotated the picture 90 degrees, and the people watching the receiver saw it rotate. When the demonstration was complete, Farnsworth said, "There you are, electronic television."

Unfortunately, Farnsworth never got much credit for his invention. He turned down offers from both RCA and General Electric because he wanted to be an independent. But he had little business expertise, and instead of spending his time developing television for a mass audience, he got bogged down in a series of lawsuits. He sank into a depression and became addicted to alcohol and prescription medicines. He spent time in a mental hospital and underwent electroshock therapy.

He never owned a television himself and refused to let his children watch it.


It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Jennifer Egan, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1962). When she graduated from high school, she wanted to travel the world, but her job at an ice cream parlor didn't pay her enough to save for a trip. So she got the idea to become a model. She had the looks and the height for the job, but she found that she hated it. She said, "I felt a desire to vanish and to speak—the two things you can't ever do as a model."

After six months, she had enough money to take off to Europe, and she later wrote about her travels in her first novel, The Invisible Circus (1995). For a long time Egan didn't talk about the fact that she'd once been a fashion model. She said, "I lived in terror of being just known as the ex-model who wrote stories." But then in 1996, she agreed to write a piece of nonfiction for The New York Times about the life of an up-and-coming fashion model, which forced her to think back on her own experiences. And that helped inspire her novel Look at Me (2001), which is partly about a fashion model recovering from a car crash. The book was nominated for a National Book Award.

Her most recent novel, The Keep, came out this year (2006).


It's the birthday of novelist and journalist Joseph (Joe) Klein, (books by this author) born in New York City (1946). He started out as a reporter in Boston, moved on to an editor's desk at Rolling Stone and Newsweek, a columnist's berth at The New Yorker, and an on-air political consultant spot for CBS News. In 1996, the novel Primary Colors was published anonymously, setting off a flurry of speculation about its author. The author was obviously a Washington insider, since the novel was so closely based on the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. Finally, a computerized stylistic analysis, combined with a handwriting analysis of the novel's corrected proofs, revealed Klein as the author. He went on to write The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (2002).




FRIDAY, 8 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Undelivered Mail" by Rhina P. Espaillat from Playing at Stillness. © Truman State University Press. Used with permission. (buy now)

Undelivered Mail

Dear Daughter,
       Your father and I wish to commend you
on the wisdom of your choices
and the flawless conduct of your life

Dear Poet!
       Where is the full-length manuscript
you promised us? Your check is waiting
The presses are ready
and the bookstores are clamoring for delivery

Darling,
       This convention is tedious
beyond belief: the hotel is swarming
with disgustingly overexposed women
far too young to have dignity
or any minds at all

Dear Patient:
       The results of your blood tests reveal
that your problem stems from
a diet dangerously low
in pizza and chocolate

Dear Mom,
       You were right about everything
and I was an idiot not to listen


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious, (books by this author) born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956) about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide.

Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills. She got the idea for the book in the middle of the night, and wrote it in ten weeks. It was the first work of fiction she ever published. She based part of the book on a town secret about a woman who murdered her father, and when the book became a best-seller, the locals in her town were horrified. It was banned in libraries across the country and the public library in her hometown didn't have a copy until the 1990s.

After her death, the book was made into a TV series that became the first ever long-running primetime soap opera, and all primetime serials since then have been based on its example.


It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Michael Frayn, (books by this author) born in London, England (1933). He's best known as the author of the play Noises Off (1982), about a group of terrible actors performing a sex comedy called Nothing On. In the first half of the play, the audience sees what's happening on the stage, and in the second half of the play the audience sees what's happening backstage.


It's the birthday of Ann Beattie, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1947). It was in grad school that she showed some short stories she'd been writing to one of her professors, the writer John O'Hara, and he started sending her stories out for publication. After a few acceptances, he suggested she try submitting to The New Yorker. She got an encouraging rejection letter, so she kept submitting. It took her twenty-two tries before The New Yorker took one of her stories, but it wasn't so bad because it had taken her only a few hours to write each of those twenty-two stories. She published both her first collection, Distortions, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976.

Her most recent collection, Follies, came out in 2005.

Ann Beattie said, "People forget years and remember moments."


It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea.

After he published his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), he was considered the best living American writer, and he was probably the most famous writer in the world. But he began to write less and less fiction in the 1930s. He went on long hunting and fishing expeditions. He became an intrepid journalist, covering the civil war in Spain. He covered the invasion of Normandy on D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and he was one of the only armed journalists fighting alongside the other soldiers.

After participating in the war, he had a hard time getting back to writing. He said, "[It's] as though you had heard so much loud music you couldn't hear anything played delicately." He finally published his first novel in ten years in 1950, Across the River and Into the Trees, about World War II. It got terrible reviews.

Hemingway had been working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book. It had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than eight hundred pages of "The Sea Book" and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

It won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He didn't publish another novel in his lifetime.


It was twenty years ago, on this day in 1986, that Oprah Winfrey's television show became nationally syndicated, broadcasting in a hundred and thirty-eight cities. It became the most popular daytime talk show of all time. Ten years later Winfrey got the idea to start a televised book club. She has gone on to pick more than fifty books for her book club, and none has sold less than 500,000 copies after being selected. People who study reading trends believe that Winfrey was persuading millions of people to begin reading for pleasure for the first time in their lives.




SATURDAY, 9 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "I Planned To Have a Border of Lavender" by Paul Goodman from Collected Poems. © Paul Goodman. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

I Planned To Have a Border of Lavender

I planned to have a border of lavender
but planted the bank too of lavender
and now my whole crazy garden
     is grown in lavender

it smells so sharp heady and musky
of lavender, and the hue of only
lavender is all my garden up
     into the gray rocks.

When forth I go from here the heedless lust
I squander—and in vain for I am stupid
and miss the moment—it has blest me silly
     when forth I go

and when, sitting as gray as these gray rocks
among the lavender, I breathe the lavender's
tireless squandering, I liken it
     to my silly lusting,

I liken my silly indefatigable
lusting to the lavender which has grown over
all my garden, banks and borders, up
     into the gray rocks


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, (books by this author) born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). He led a wild life as a young man and then in his mid-thirties he decided that it was time to get married.

He began spending a lot of time with a friend who had three available daughters, and everyone expected him to propose to the oldest. But he found himself falling in love with the less attractive but more intelligent middle daughter, Sophia. The closer he got to making a proposal, however, the more panicked he felt. He could hardly think about anything else, and he wasn't at all sure he wanted to go through with it. He wrote his marriage proposal in a letter, but he couldn't bring himself to send it. He kept it in his pocket for twenty-four hours. He finally got up the courage to go to Sophia's house, but he couldn't even speak. So he just handed her the letter and walked away.

That night Tolstoy suddenly realized that what he really wanted in a wife was someone with whom he could share his most private thoughts, and he decided that if he was going to marry this girl, he would have to let her read his diary. So they set the date for the wedding a week later, and during that week Tolstoy gave Sophia his diary to read. She was excited at first, but by the time she finished reading she was in tears, horrified by his descriptions of brothels and his affairs with peasant girls. Tolstoy asked if she forgave him for his past, and she said she did. He said that she could call off the wedding if she wanted to, but it was impossible to do so because so many people already knew about the proposal.

The marriage was not particularly happy for Sophia. She'd grown up in a cosmopolitan, aristocratic world, and after marrying Tolstoy she had to live on a rural estate where her husband lived almost like a peasant. His house was extraordinarily simple, with no upholstered furniture and no carpets on the floor. He even wore peasant clothes, when he wasn't entertaining guests.

But for Tolstoy, the early years of his marriage were some of the happiest of his life. The regularity of married life let him settle down to work more steadily than ever before. And in the midst of that happiness, he wrote his first masterpiece, War and Peace (1868). It was the longest and most ambitious novel he'd ever written, and he was only willing to attempt it because he now had his wife to work as his secretary. When he would scribble corrections all over a rough draft, she was the only person who could decipher what his corrections said. Even he couldn't read his own handwriting. She ultimately copied by hand the 1400-page manuscript for War and Peace (1868) four times.

While he was working on War and Peace, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old-fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted. In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and he went to view the body at the train station. He never forgot what he saw that day, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery.

That novel was Anna Karenina (1875), in which the story of the romance between Konstantin Levin and a young woman named Kitty was based almost entirely on Tolstoy's own marriage. When it was published, most critics said Anna Karenina was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It begins, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."


It's the birthday of Paul Goodman, born in Greenwich Village in New York City (1911). He worked a series of jobs teaching literature, but he kept getting fired because he didn't hide his bisexuality, and because he told his students to resist the draft during World War II. He underwent psychoanalysis and found it so interesting that he became a freelance analyst himself. But in the late 1950s his life began to fall apart. He couldn't get a job, no one would publish his books, and he spent almost all of his time alone, writing in his journals. Then in 1960 he published Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System, about the alienation of American young people. The book made him a famous.




SUNDAY, 10 SEPTEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Modern Greek 101" by Rachel Hadas from The River of Forgetfulness. © David Robert Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Modern Greek 101

These phrases, once lodged in your memory,
Will help you find your way, I guarantee,
Through any social circumstance in Greek,
Each Scylla and Charybdis when you speak.
All will work in any situation,
Plug up gaps in any conversation,
Politely answer any salutation.
It's surely no coincidence all four
In different ways purport to reassure.
So get your notebooks out, for here they are.

Siga-siga first: take it easy, slow
Down. Ti na kanome: what can we do?
Then pirazi: it doesn't matter
(see how our repertory's getting fatter?)
Last but not least en daxi: all right, okay.
These are the crucial ones, and this is why:
Whichever of the four you chance to use
Shrugs with a weary grace you can't refuse,
An attitude for which there is no name
In English, though we try it all the same,
Not understanding what we imitate,
Mild acquiescence in the face of Fate,
Not dialectical and not dramatic,
But unassuming, formulaic, phatic.

One boiling morning I remarked, "It's hot."
The aproned landlord shrugged: "It matters not."
"What a pretty evening," I once said.
"What can we do?" a black-clad crone replied.
Reverse these scraps of dialogue: you too
Can answer anything that's said to you—
Though said is not the word so much as sung:
A whole philosophy rolls off the tongue.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of naturalist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould, (books by this author) born in New York City (1941). When he was a boy, he was fascinated by garbage trucks and decided that he wanted to be a garbage collector so he could examine all of the strange things that people throw away. He collected everything from sea shells to cigarette packages. But when he was five years old, his father took him to the Museum of Natural History, and he saw his first dinosaur skeleton, a twenty-foot high tyrannosaurus. He later wrote, "As we stood in front of the beast a man sneezed; I gulped and prepared to say my Shema Yisrael [last prayer]. But the great animal stood immobile in all its bony grandeur, and as we left, I announced that I would be a paleontologist when I grew up."

He hoped to study biology in school, but at the time most high schools shied away from teaching Darwin's theories of evolution, and so Gould read Darwin on his own, and his parents took him on amateur fossil hunting expeditions. He went on to study geology and paleontology and wrote his dissertation on an extinct land snail native to the Bahamas. He once said that his research on the taxonomy of the snail was of interest to about eight people in the world, but, he said, "Those eight people really care."

He might have remained a little-known snail scholar, but in 1974, he was offered a job writing a monthly column for Natural History magazine. He decided that his guiding focus in the column would be the theory of evolution, but aside from that he would write about whatever he was interested in, from the history of Mickey Mouse to the unreliability of IQ tests. He often wrote about baseball, having been a baseball fan ever since he caught a foul ball hit by Joe DiMaggio.

Gould even wrote about his own battle with cancer. He loved the fact that when he was diagnosed with cancer, the average life expectancy for his condition was eight months, and yet he lived for twenty more years. He wrote an article about it, exploring the many meanings of the word "average."

His essays were collected in books such as The Panda's Thumb (1980) and The Flamingo's Smile (1985). He died in 2003. He once said, "[Evolutionary theory] attempts, insofar as science can, to answer the questions of what our life means, and why we are here, and where we come from, and who we are related to, and what has happened through time, and what has been the history of this planet. These are questions that all thinking people have to ponder."




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