Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "In November" by Lisel Mueller, from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. © Louisiana State University Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In November

Outside the house the wind is howling
and the trees are creaking horribly.
This is an old story
with its old beginning,
as I lay me down to sleep.
But when I wake up, sunlight
has taken over the room.
You have already made the coffee
and the radio brings us music
from a confident age. In the paper
bad news is set in distant places.
Whatever was bound to happen
in my story did not happen.
But I know there are rules that cannot be broken.
Perhaps a name was changed.
A small mistake. Perhaps
a woman I do not know
is facing the day with the heavy heart
that, by all rights, should have been mine.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of journalist and short-story writer Tracy Kidder, (books by this author) born in New York City (1945), who started out as a fiction writer, but decided early on that he preferred writing about real people. In the late 1970s, he spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer. He described the engineers as, "knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement. ... They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares." Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine was one of the first non-technical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1981.

Kidder went on to write a series of books about apparently ordinary topics. For his book House (1985), he wrote about the construction of a single house in Amherst, Massachusetts, because he said, "[Building] is the quintessential act of civilization." To write his book Among Schoolchildren (1989), he sat in a single fifth-grade classroom in an impoverished public school for an entire school year, missing only two days. Over the course of that year, he took 10,000 pages of notes. He wanted to focus entirely on the experience of a single teacher because, he said, "For better or worse, education is what happens in these little rooms." His most recent book is the memoir My Detachment (2005) about his experiences in Vietnam.

Tracy Kidder said, "To write you have to have stories you want to tell, you have to keep your mind alive, and you have to work hard."

It's the birthday of Wallace Shawn, (books by this author) born in New York City (1943). He's the son of the former New Yorker editor William Shawn, and he's become well known as a character actor in Hollywood movies such as The Princess Bride (1987) and Clueless (1995). Most people don't know that he's also an avant-garde playwright. When he got out of college, a lot of his friends took jobs writing for his father's magazine, but Shawn supported his playwriting by working as a photocopy clerk. He then got the idea of selling stock in himself, and managed to raise $2,500 from investors, which helped him write his first plays. To this day, he sends all those early investors a small annual check. His early plays were not successes. During his first play, the audience actually shouted for the actors to shut up. But he finally had a breakthrough when he wrote and starred in the movie My Dinner with Andre (1981), which consists entirely of Shawn and the theater director Andre Gregory talking over dinner, but it became a cult classic. His play The Designated Mourner came out in 1996.

It's the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, (books by this author) born in Cherbourg, France (1915), who studied to be a professor, but he caught TB and that made it hard for him to teach. So he began writing for magazines, and he became one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, "I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life, and ... it's been pretty fun." His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970).

It's the birthday of DeWitt Wallace, (books by this author) born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889) who got an idea to publish a magazine that just reprinted condensed versions of the best articles from all the major publications of the day. The first issue came out in February, 1922, and it went on to become the most successful magazine of all time, Reader's Digest, with 39 editions in 15 languages and a total circulation of almost 30 million magazines a month.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "I Used to Be but Now I Am" by Ted Berrigan, from The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan. © University of California Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

I Used to Be but Now I Am

I used to be inexorable,
But now I am elusive.

I used to be the future of America,
But now I am America.

I used to be part of the problem,
But now I am the problem.

I used to be part of the solution, if not all of it,
But now I am not that person.

I used to be intense, & useful,
But now I am heavy, & boring.

I used to be sentimental about myself, & therefore ruthless,
But now I am, I think, a sympathetic person, although
              easily amused.

I used to be a believer,
But now, alas, I believe.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Saint Augustine, born in Tagaste, Numidia, a part of North Africa that is now Algeria (354). He converted to Christianity as an adult and wanted nothing more than to settle down to a quiet life of thinking about theology and writing books. But when he moved to the port town of Hippo to set up a monastery, he was forced to take over the duties of the local bishop, and he regretted for the rest of his life that he had to spend so much of his time delivering sermons and running a parish, when he could have devoted all that time to writing.

He still managed to write more than 90 books in his lifetime, but he wasn't taken very seriously by other theologians. He couldn't read or write in Greek, which was the language of intellectuals, and he lived in a backwater part of the Roman Empire. But by living on the edge of the empire, he was intimately familiar with all the pagan influences that were threatening Christianity, and he devoted himself to debunking all the popular new-age religions. His most famous book, The Confessions (c. 400), is in part the story of how he converted to Christianity after living for years as a pagan.

In the last years of his life, Augustine was witnessing the fall of the Roman Empire. His city of Hippo was besieged by vandals, and it was destroyed soon after his death. But somehow Augustine's library survived, and all his ideas about resisting pagan influences became doctrine within the church.

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850), who was a sickly, moderately successful essayist and travel writer, living in France, when one evening he walked to a friend's house, looked in through the window, and fell instantly in love with a woman sitting there at the table. To make a grand entrance, he opened the window, leapt inside, and took a bow. The woman was Fanny Osbourne and she was both American and unhappily married. She had come to Europe to get away from her husband, but after spending months getting to know Stevenson, she decided to go back to California.

Stevenson got a telegram from her a few weeks after she'd returned to the United States, and he decided on the spot to drop everything and go persuade her to divorce her husband and marry him. His health, as always, was terrible, and the trip to the United States almost killed him. He collapsed on Fanny Osbourne's doorstep, but she nursed him back to health. She did divorce her husband, and they got married in San Francisco and spent their honeymoon in a cabin near an abandoned silver mine.

They moved back to Scotland with her son from her previous marriage, and one rainy afternoon the following summer Stevenson painted a map of an imaginary island to entertain his new stepson. The map gave him and idea for a story and in a single month he had written his first great novel, Treasure Island (1883), about the young Jim Hawkins, who finds a treasure map and goes on a journey to find the treasure. He meets pirates, survives a mutiny, and gets to know a one-legged cook named Long John Silver. The book has been in print for 124 years now.

Around the same time that Treasure Island was published, Stevenson woke up one morning and told his family that he did not want to be disturbed until he had finished writing a story that had come to him in a dream. It took him three days to write it, but when he read the story aloud to his wife, she said it was too sensationalistic. So he sat down and rewrote the whole thing. By the end of the week he was fairly happy with the result, which he called Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), about a scientist who invents a chemical that changes his personality from a mild-mannered gentleman to a savage criminal.

Those two books made Stevenson rich and famous. He spent the rest of his life traveling from one place to the next, producing about 400 pages of published work a year. He finally settled on the island of Samoa, where his health improved greatly, and in the last five years of his life, he wrote 10 more books. He died at the age of 44, not from his respiratory illness, but from a stroke. His contemporaries saw him as one of the greatest writers of his generation, but he's now remembered mainly as a writer of adventure stories. Critics wish he had finished the last novel he had been working on, about colonial life in Samoa, because the fragments that survive are among his best work.

Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Rain In Childhood" by Eric Ormsby, from For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems. © PGrove/Atlantic, 1999. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Rain In Childhood

This was the feeling that the dark rain gave
on school days when the windows of the bus
dimmed with all our breath and we pressed close
in jostling slickers, knowing the pleasure of
being a body with other bodies, we children
a flotilla of little ducks, paddling together
on the wet ride to the schoolhouse door.
Once there, we peered outside appraisingly,
beyond the windows and the balustrades
to where the rain came down outrageously
and made the trees and signposts and the light
at the intersection swoop and toss
and fizz with gritty torrents to the curb.

That steamy, tar-damp smell of morning rain,
its secret smokiness upon our mouths,
surprised us with some sorrow of nostalgia.
Our past already had such distances!
Already in that fragrance we could sense
the end of childhood, where remembrance stands.

And when thunder pummeled the embrittled clouds —
concussive ricochets that made the teacher
hover with the chalk held in her hand —
we saw the lighting lace the school's facade
with instantaneous traceries and hairline fires,
like a road map glimpsed by flashlight in a car.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the painters who helped invent Impressionism, Claude Monet, born in Paris (1840). He and his friend Auguste Renoir were among the first European painters to take their canvases outside to paint directly from nature. They would often work as quickly as they could, so that their paintings looked like sketches, and that sketchy style became known as Impressionism. Monet spent the rest of his career exploring the idea that you can never really see the same thing twice. In a single day, he would often paint the same subject half a dozen times, from slightly different angles and in slightly different light, spending no more than about an hour on each canvas. In the last 30 years of his life, he painted almost nothing but the water lilies in his garden. Claude Monet, who said, "I am following Nature without being able to grasp her. I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers."

It's the birthday of cartoonist and author and William Steig, (books by this author) born in New York City (1907), who sold his first cartoon for $40 to The New Yorker when he was 23. It was a picture of one prison inmate telling another, "My son's incorrigible, I can't do a thing with him." He went on to publish more than 1,600 drawings for the magazine and painted 117 covers. But today, he's perhaps best known for his children's book Shrek! (1993), about an ugly green ogre who hears the prophecy of a witch that he will marry a princess even uglier than he. It was made into an animated movie in 2002.

It's the birthday of the conservative humorist and essayist P.J. [Patrick Jake] O'Rourke, (books by this author) born in Toledo, Ohio (1947). He's the author of Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics (1998) and Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism, which came out in 2004.

It's the birthday of the creator of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, (books by this author) born on a farm near Vimmerby, Sweden (1907).

On this day in 1851, Harper & Brothers published Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, (more books by this author) his first really ambitious novel. Unfortunately, his British publisher had hired someone to go through the book and edit out anything too obscure or possibly obscene, and the result was that the language was changed in numerous places. But worst of all, the epilogue had been left out entirely. This confused a lot of British readers, because it didn't make sense how Ishmael, the narrator, had lived to tell the tale. The reviews were harsh, and the book flopped, partly because of those British reviews. As a writer, Melville never recovered from the disappointment. These days, college students buy 20,000 copies of Moby-Dick every year.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Letter of Recommendation" by Robert B. Shaw, from Solving for X. © POhio University Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Letter of Recommendation

Miss A, who graduated six years back,
has air-expressed me an imposing stack
of forms in furtherance of her heart's desire:
a Ph.D. Not wishing to deny her,
I dredge around for something laudatory
to say that won't be simply a tall story;
in fact, I search for memories of her,
and draw a blank—or say, at best a blur.
Was hers the class in that ungodly room
whose creaking door slammed with a sonic boom,
whose radiators twangeled for the first
ten minutes, and then hissed, and (this was worst)
subsided with a long, regretful sigh?
Yes, there, as every Wednesday we would try
to overlook cacophony and bring
our wits to bear on some distinguished thing
some poet sometime wrote, Miss A would sit
calm in a middle row and ponder it.
Blonde, I believe, and quiet (so many are).
A dutiful note-taker. Not a star.
Roundheads and Cavaliers received their due
notice from her before the term was through.
She wrote a paper on... could it have been
"Milton's Idea of Original Sin"?
Or was it "Deathbed Imagery in Donne"?
Whichever, it was likely not much fun
for her. It wasn't bad, though I've seen better.
But I can hardly say that in a letter
like this one, now refusing to take shape
even as wispy memories escape
the reach of certitude. Try as I may,
I cannot render palpable Miss A,
who, with five hundred classmates, left few traces
when she decamped. Those mortarboard-crowned faces,
multitudes, beaming, ardent to improve
a world advancing dumbly in its groove,
crossing the stage that day-to be consigned
to a cold-storage portion of the mind...
What could be sadder? (She remembered me.)
The transcript says I gave Miss A a B.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist J.G. (James Graham) Ballard, (books by this author) born to British parents in Shanghai, China (1930). He grew up in a British expatriate community in China, but during World War II, he and his family were forced by the Japanese into an internment camp where he saw people being beaten and shot, and he watched bombs fall on nearby airfields. After the war, he moved with his family to England, a country he'd only heard about, and he was shocked by the dreariness of London, which was still a bombed-out mess. He later said, "People talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as though they had lost it."

He went on to write a series of surreal science fiction novels, including The Drowned World (1962), about a future in which the polar ice caps have melted and Europe and America have become tropical lagoons, and Crash (1973), about a cult of people who are so obsessed with car accidents that they reenact the fatal car crashes of celebrities.

Then, after almost 30 years of writing science fiction, Ballard decided to write about his experiences in China during World War II. He said, "[I wanted to] convey the casual surrealism of war, the deep silence of abandoned villages and paddy fields, the strange normality of a dead Japanese soldier lying by the road like an unwanted piece of luggage." The result was his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), which became a huge best-seller and has since been called the best British novel about World War II. His most recent book is Kingdom Come (2006).

It's the birthday of Georgia O'Keeffe, born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (1887), who became famous for her paintings of flowers. But when asked why she chose flowers as her subject, she said "Because they're cheaper than models and they don't move."

It's the birthday of Marianne Moore, (books by this author) born in Kirkwood, Missouri (1887), who said "Poetry is the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads."

It was on this day in 1940 that 75,000 men were called to Armed Forces duty under the first peacetime conscription in American history. The draft had never been popular in America. During the Civil War it had sparked riots, and during World War I more than 3 million men refused to register at all. But people had heard about Hitler's army invading and occupying Poland and France over the course of several months. In October of 1940, 16 million young men appeared at precinct election boards across the country to register with the Selective Service, and the first 75,000 draftees were called up to service on this day in 1940. In 1939, a poll had shown that only 35 percent of Americans approved of a draft, but by 1940 that support had gone up to 92 percent.

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Beside the Point" by Stephen Cushman, from The Virginia Quarterly Review: Spring 2006. Reprinted with permission.

Beside the Point

The sky has never won a prize.
The clouds have no careers.
The rainbow doesn't say my work,
thank goodness.

The rock in the creek's not so productive.
The mud on the bank's not too pragmatic.
There's nothing useful in the noise
the wind makes in the leaves.

Buck up now, my fellow superfluity,
and let's both be of that worthless ilk,
self-indulgent as shooting stars,
self-absorbed as sunsets.

Who cares if we're inconsequential?
At least we can revel, two good-for-nothings,
in our irrelevance; at least come and make
no difference with me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1907 that Oklahoma became the 46th state of the nation. For most of the 1800s, it had been the place where displaced Indians from the east had been forced to live against their will. But as Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas all filled up with settlers and gold prospectors, Oklahoma became the last area of the frontier that had yet to be occupied by the flood of American pioneers. And so in March of 1889, President Benjamin Harrison announced that a 2-million acre section of the Indian Territory had been reclassified as "unassigned lands." And starting at noon on April 22 of that year, anyone who wanted a few acres of land could stake a claim as their own.

Fifty thousand settlers showed up for what became known as the Oklahoma land grab. They lined up along the borders of the so-called "unassigned lands," many of them sleeping on the ground until April 22, when officials fired off guns, and settlers began a mad dash into the territory. Some took off on horses, some ran in on foot. Some had their wagon axles break within a few yards, and they had to decide whether or not to chase the horses.

The settlers just had to pick an unclaimed section and drive a flag bearing their own name into it. In order to keep the land, they were required to work it for the next five years. There were disputes over who had claimed certain spots first. Newspaper reports that day included photographs of settlers drawing guns on each other. But there was little violence. The year after the land rush, 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau officially announced that America had no remaining frontier. Seventeen years later, on this day in 1907, Oklahoma qualified for statehood by amassing a population of more than 60,000 people.

It's the birthday of the playwright George S. Kaufman, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1889), who inherited a terrible case of hypochondria from his mother. She wouldn't let him play with other children, for fear of germs, and she wouldn't let him drink milk either. The only beverage he was allowed was boiled water. By the time he was an adult, he was terrified of being touched and he never shook hands. He was so afraid of dying in his sleep that he often didn't sleep for days. He once said, "The kind of doctor I want is one who when he's not examining me is home studying medicine."

But despite his quirks, Kaufman managed to cowrite more hit plays than anyone else in the history of Broadway, including Animal Crackers (1928), Strike Up the Band (1930), and You Can't Take It With You (1938). His various partners through the years all said that he was a meticulous rewriter and polisher, that he was never satisfied with a script even up till the last minute. Even on the most triumphant of opening nights, he could always be found backstage, pale and terrified that the play would be a flop.

It's the birthday of the novelist Andrea Barrett, (books by this author) born in Boston (1954), who is known for writing about botanists, oceanographers, and geologists in novels such as The Forms of Water (1993) and The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998). She said, "I think science and writing are utterly the same thing. They are completely rooted in passion and desire, if they're any good at all. You can fall in love with the natural world in the same way you fall in love with a person. There's that same sense of helplessness, of lacking control over how much of your life you want to devote to it." Her most recent book is The Air We Breathe, which came out last month (2007).

It's the birthday of the novelist Chinua Achebe, (books by this author) born in Ogidi, Nigeria (1930). His great-uncle was the man who first received European missionaries into his village. His father became one of the village's early converts to Christianity. Achebe was baptized as a Christian and spent his childhood reading the Bible every day. He went on to study literature at a school run by Europeans, but when he first read Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, about the colonization of Africa, he realized that nobody had written a novel from the point of view of the Africans. So he wrote Things Fall Apart (1958), which became an international best-seller and helped inspire a whole generation of African writers.

It's the birthday of the novelist Jose Saramago, (books by this author) born in a small village northeast of Lisbon, Portugal (1922). He published his first few novels when he was in his 20s and then stopped writing fiction for the next 30 years. He said, "That was maybe one of the wisest decisions of my life ... I had nothing worthwhile to say." He didn't start writing fiction again until the newspaper where he worked was shut down by the government. So he moved to a small peasant village and wrote a novel about the people there called Raised from the Ground (1980). His breakthrough novel was Blindness (1997), about a mysterious disease that causes everyone in a city to lose their sight. It was an international best-seller and a year later, in 1998, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. Jose Saramago said, "If you don't write your books, nobody else will do it for you. No one else has lived your life."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Loss and Gain" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

Loss and Gain

When I compare
What I have lost with what I have gained,
What I have missed with what attained,
Little room do I find for pride.

I am aware
How many days have been idly spent;
How like an arrow the good intent
Has fallen short or been turned aside.

But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of American novelist and historian Shelby Foote, (more books by this author) born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). He had already published several novels, including Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950), and Love in a Dry Season (1951), when in 1952 an editor asked him if he would try writing a narrative history of the Civil War. Foote said he thought it would take about four years, but it wound up taking two decades, and the result was almost 3,000 pages long when published. Foote later compared the project to swallowing a cannonball.

While he was working on the third volume, Foote wrote a letter to his best friend, the novelist Walker Percy: "Dear Walker, I killed Lincoln last week. Saturday, at noon ... [I] killed him and had Stanton say, 'Now he belongs to the ages.' A strange feeling though. I have another seventy-odd pages to go, and I have a feeling it'll be like Hamlet with Hamlet left out." Foote spent the last 25 years of his life working on an epic novel about Mississippi called Two Gates to the City. It remained unfinished when he died in 2006. Shelby Foote said, "A writer's like anybody else except when he's writing."

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne. Her father, King Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, in hopes of producing a male heir. But when Elizabeth was born, he had Anne Boleyn beheaded and declared Elizabeth an illegitimate child. She grew up in a world of conspiracies and assassinations. Because she was a potential heir to the throne, her life was constantly in danger.

England almost broke out in civil war when Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary Tudor, came to power and tried to turn England back into a Catholic nation. But Mary died just five years after becoming queen, leaving behind a debt-ridden, divided country. Elizabeth took the throne on this day in 1558. She was 25 years old. One of her first acts as queen was to restore England to Protestantism. Militant Protestants wanted her to seek out secret Catholics and prosecute them, but Elizabeth decided that she wasn't going to police anyone's private beliefs. She required everyone to go to the Church of England on Sunday and that they all use the same prayer book, but aside from that they could believe whatever they wanted.

She also eased the restrictions on the legal operation of theaters, and the result was a new career for writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and William Shakespeare. Part of the reason so many great writers came out of the Elizabethan era was simply that it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, in which people had the luxury to read books and go to the theater. But Elizabeth also helped encourage the English to have pride in themselves, in their history, and especially their language.

She reigned for 45 years, one of the great eras in English history. Near the end of her reign, she said to her subjects: "Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat; yet you never had, nor shall have any that will love you better."

Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Ticket" by Charles O. Hartman, from Island. © Ahsahta Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


I love the moment at the ticket window—he says—
when you are to say the name of your destination, and realize
that you could say anything, the man at the counter
will believe you, the woman at the counter
would never say No, that isn't where you're going,
you could buy a ticket for one place and go to another,
less far along the same line. Suddenly you would find yourself
—he says—in a locality you've never seen before,
where no one has ever seen you and you could say your name
was anything you like, nobody would say No,
that isn't you, this is who you are. It thrills me every time.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, (books by this author) born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939), who as far as anyone can tell, has had an extremely happy life, a happy childhood, a happy marriage, but who has written a series of very disturbing books, including The Edible Woman (1969), about a woman who stops eating after her boyfriend proposes marriage; The Handmaid's Tale (1985), about an imaginary America where most women have lost the ability to have babies, and the few fertile women left are forced to become surrogate mothers for the upper class; and Cat's Eye (1988), about an artist whose retrospective forces her to return to her hometown and relive the memories of being tortured by her closest childhood friend, Cordelia.

Critics started calling Atwood "the high priestess of pain," but Atwood said, "All that means is that I'm good at describing certain kinds of emotions. ... I'm also good at writing fake newspaper reports. [I could be the] high priestess of fake newspaper reports." She also said, "Women see me as living proof that you don't have to come to a sticky end — put your head in an oven, stay silent for 30 years, not have children — to be a good and serious writer." Her most recent book is The Tent (2006), a collection of stories and poems.

It's the birthday of American statistician George Gallup, (books by this author) born in Jefferson, Iowa (1901). He was a student at the University of Iowa when he conducted his first poll for the Daily Iowan, to find the prettiest girl on campus. The winner was Ophelia Smith, whom Gallup later married. In 1935, he set up the American Institute of Public Opinion at Princeton University and became the first person to show that small samples of the populace could accurately predict general attitudes. He became famous when he predicted the margin by which Franklin D. Roosevelt would beat Alf Landon in 1936. About 200 newspapers began publishing his reports, and he only made one major mistake, predicting that Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman in 1948. George Gallup said, "Polling is merely an instrument for gauging public opinion. When a president or any other leader pays attention to poll results, he is, in effect, paying attention to the views of the people. Any other interpretation is nonsense."

It's the birthday of playwright and humorist W.S. (William Schwenk) Gilbert, (books by this author) of Gilbert and Sullivan, born in London (1836). He was a writer of humorous verse when he met composer Arthur Sullivan in 1870, and they went on to write 14 comic operas in the 25-year period from 1871 to 1896, including H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) and The Pirates of Penzance (1879). W.S. Gilbert, who wrote, "Life's a pudding full of plums; / Care's a canker that benumbs, / Wherefore waste our elocution / On impossible solution? / Life's a pleasant institution, / Let us take it as it comes."

It's the birthday of the man who helped invent the art of photography, Louis Daguerre, born just outside of Paris, France (1789), who started out as a theater designer, using hand-painted translucent screens and elaborate lighting effects to create the illusion of a sunrise or a sudden storm onstage. But in 1829, he learned about a new technology that made it possible to use light to capture an image on a metal plate, though the quality of the image was poor. Daguerre set out to improve the process, and he came up with a combination of copper plate coated with silver salts that could be developed with the application of mercury vapor and table salt.

He first used this process to capture a series of images of Paris, including pictures of the Louvre and Notre Dame. The camera needed about 15 minutes exposure time to capture an image, so most of Dagurre's early pictures don't show any people. The one exception is a picture of a boulevard that shows a man in the foreground who has stopped to shine his shoes. He was the first human being ever caught on film. Daguerre announced his invention in 1839, and the images he produced became known as daguerreotypes.



  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning