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Poem: "Words from the Front" by Ron Padgett, from How to Be Perfect. © Coffee House Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Words from the Front

We don't look as young
as we used to
except in dim light
especially in
the soft warmth of candlelight
when we say
in all sincerity
You're so cute
You're my cutie.
two old people
behaving like this.
It's enough
to make you happy.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Allen Tate, (books by this author) born in Winchester, Kentucky (1899), who believed that Southern culture was being corrupted by Northern industrialism, but he didn't make his name as a poet until he moved to the North himself. He got fired from a true stories magazine for correcting his boss's grammar, so he rented a farmhouse in upstate New York and wrote his best-known poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead" (1928), about standing at the gate of a cemetery and feeling cut off from the past. He went on to write the biographies Stonewall Jackson (1928) and Jefferson Davis (1929), and his novel The Fathers (1938). His Collected Poems came out in 1977.

It's the birthday of the poet Sharon Olds, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1942), who didn't publish her first book of poems, Satan Says (1980), until she was 37 years old. She said, "I was a late bloomer. But anyone who blooms at all, ever, is very lucky. ...Many lives don't allow that, the good fortune of being able to work at it, and try, and keep trying."

Olds one of the few modern poets who actually sells thousands of copies of her books, in part because she writes about the family lives and love lives of ordinary women in her collections The Dead and the Living (1984), The Father (1992), and Blood, Tin, Straw (1999). Most readers assume she is writing about her own life, but early in her career, Olds made a vow that she would never talk about her personal life in public, and she refuses to say whether or not her poems are autobiographical.

She also tries not to watch any television or read any newspapers, because she just doesn't have time. To stay informed about the world, she looks at the front page of newspapers when she walks past newsstands, and she asks her friends to brief her on world affairs. She said, "It might be a bad thing, not to know what's going on in the world. I can't say I really approve of it ...[I just don't like] learning about so many things that we can't do anything about." Her collection Strike Sparks came out in 2004.

It was on this day in 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of a new cemetery to honor the 23,000 Union soldiers and 20,000 Confederates who had been newly reburied months after the battle. The organizers had invited the most popular poets of the day to write something in honor of the occasion, but Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant all declined. So the keynote speaker was Edward Everett, known for his speeches about battlefields. Lincoln was invited only as an afterthought, but he hoped to use the occasion to explain why he thought this horrific war was still worth fighting.

About 15,000 people showed up that day, and the festivities began with a military band. A local preacher offered a long prayer, and then Edward Everett stood up and spoke for over two hours, describing the Battle of Gettysburg in great detail, and he brought the audience to tears more than once.

When Everett was finished, Lincoln got up, and pulled his speech from his coat pocket. It consisted of only 10 sentences, just 272 words, did not mention any of the specifics of the war or any of the details of the battle, did not mention the North or the South, and did not mention slavery. What he said was that our nation was founded on the idea of equality, and the war was being fought over that idea. And he ended by saying, "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The audience was distracted by a photographer setting up his camera, and by the time Lincoln had finished his speech and sat down, many people in the audience didn't even realize he had spoken. But Edward Everett later told the president, "I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes."

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Poem: "Man in a Parking Lot" by Catherine Jagoe, from Casting Off. © Parallel Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Man in a Parking Lot

When you have a son
you start seeing men
backwards, intuiting their childhood
selves beneath the years of accretions—
the bags and jowls, paunches,
thickened, crumpled skin,
the whole weight of the individual
personality, its freight of filters,
opinions, prejudices, habits,
likes, congealed—as if you knew them
before they even knew themselves.

So when a man stumbles toward you,
mumbling, across the Cubb's Foods parking lot,
unkempt and coatless in the snow,
and your discriminating mind says
"madman," "danger," though he never
once looks up, locked in an altered world,
fixed, unfixable, you lock your car door and then
sit there wondering how it happened,
when things started going wrong.
Knowing he was once a toddler—
for pity's sake—you find it
strange, unreal, this mane of wild
grey hair, grey beard. Somehow
you know it doesn't belong on him,
all that hair, and you don't know
how he got to be so lost, so sick, so old.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Don DeLillo, (books by this author) born in New York City (1936), who worked at an advertising agency for three years after college, and then one day decided to quit. He later said, "I didn't quit my job to write fiction. I just didn't want to work anymore... what I wanted was... [to] look at the world.... I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles." He developed a cult following for his early books, his novel White Noise (1984) won the National Book Award and he got great reviews for his novels Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991), but by the 1990s he still hadn't had any best-sellers.

And then he read a 40th anniversary description of a famous 1951 baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers, which ended with a game-winning three-run home run hit by the Giants' Bobby Thompson that became known as "the shot heard round the world." DeLillo realized that on the very same day as that baseball game, Americans found out that Russia had exploded its first nuclear device. He was intrigued by the coincidence and decided he had to write something about it.

The result was his novel Underworld (1997), which starts with a description of that baseball game and then follows the baseball that Bobby Thompson hit into the stands that day, and a garbage disposal specialist named Nick Shay who buys what he believes to be that baseball 40 years later, and everything that happens to him and the people in his life over the course of those 40 years. Critics saw the novel as a summation of the Cold War era, which had just come to an end. The book became a best-seller even though it was more than 800 pages long.

Don DeLillo said, "My own personal preference is for fiction that is steeped in history, that takes account of ways in which our perceptions are being changed by events around us. Global events that may alter how we live in the smallest ways." His most recent novel is Falling Man (2007), about the September 11th attacks.

It's the birthday of the novelist Nadine Gordimer, (books by this author) born in Springs, South Africa (1923), who grew up in a middle-class white community near a gold mine where all the black workers were forced to live in a windowless barracks, guarded by police. She never thought about who those miners were or what their lives were like until the day she read Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, and she began to see the similarities between the meat packers in the book and the miners in her town.

Gordimer eventually moved to the racially mixed bohemian community in Johannesburg and began writing short stories, published in collections such as Face to Face (1949) and The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952). She watched as many of her black friends were put under surveillance and arrested for treason. She was one of the few white novelists of her generation who did not go into exile. Instead, she began to write about the South African political resistance in a series of novels, including The Late Bourgeois World (1966), The Guest of Honor (1970), and The Conservationist (1974), which won the Booker Prize. She was attacked by South Africa's government, and her books were banned for years at time. And then in 1991, a year after Nelson Mandela was released from his 28 years of imprisonment, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in literature.

In 1994, South Africa finally came under black majority rule. After that, Gordimer said, "[Critics kept asking me] what are you going to write about now, as if life stopped because apartheid stopped. On the contrary. We've got plenty of problems." Her most recent book is the collection, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: and Other Stories, which comes out next week (2007). She said, "The ideal way to write is as if oneself and one's readers were already dead."

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Poem: "When I Am Old" by Ray Nargis, from Almost Tomorrow. © Raven Productions, Inc, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

When I Am Old

When I am old I shall wear a ball cap
From the St. Louis Browns
Because my grandfather once played in their farm system,
Or maybe a John B. Stetson hat, three-corner fold,
Four X and black chinos with both suspenders and a belt
And the knees ripped out, not as a fashion statement,
But from work.
And black biker boots and a T-shirt with the slogan
"I'm Working On My Issues."
I'll use a walking stick and not a cane
And have a key ring with about a hundred keys
And I won't know what any of them open and I won't care.

When I am old I'll drink whiskey in the morning
And coffee at night
And laugh and spit and swear wherever I want.
When I am old I'll help Girl Scouts across the street
Even if they don't want to go
And I won't have a car
And I won't have a bike
And I'll walk everywhere.

When I am old I'll have a dog named Sam Peckinpaw
And some summer's morning I'll lock up the house
And old Sam and I will walk over to see to see one of my sons
Even if he lives two states away.
When I am old I'll tell people exactly what I think of them
And surprisingly, most of the time it really will be good stuff.
When I am old I won't have a TV
And I won't have a radio
And I won't have a computer or a clock or a phone in the house.
I won't read books and I won't read magazines
And I won't read newspapers and maybe, finally
I'll learn something just watching the birds and the weather.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1877 that Thomas Edison announced that he had invented a new device for recording and playing back sound, which he called the phonograph. His hope was that it would replace stenographers in business offices, and that it would allow people to preserve the voices of family members who had died. He wrote, "It will annihilate time and space, and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man."

But most people who saw the early demonstrations of the phonograph found it spooky, as though it were playing back the voice of a ghost. Edison demonstrated it for the editors of Scientific American magazine, and the magazine later wrote, "No matter how familiar a person may be with the modern machinery, or how clear in his mind the principles underlying this strange device may be. It is impossible to listen to this mechanical speech without experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him."

For the first 10 years or so, most people remained uneasy with the phonograph. In order to help American customers feel more comfortable with the idea of playing back sound, the Columbia Phonograph Company commissioned a recording of marching music by John Philip Sousa's U.S. Marine Band. The idea was that Americans couldn't be spooked out by patriotic music, and those recordings became some of the first successful musical recordings ever sold.

But John Philip Sousa did not like the phonograph. He said, "The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music. Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards."

Sousa was right. In 1900, most American homes had at least one musical instrument, and instead of buying records, people bought sheet music. But by the 1950s, almost all of the music being made in this country was being made by professional musicians, and few families gathered around pianos any more. Recording devices preserved the American folk music that by then had begun to die out, but it might never have died out at all if it hadn't been for recording devices.

It's the birthday of the man who helped spark the Enlightenment in France, writing under the name Voltaire, born Francois-Marie Arouet in Paris (1694). He was already a well-known playwright and poet when, in 1725, he got into an argument with a nobleman. A few days later, that nobleman hired a group of men to surround Voltaire in the street and beat him with cudgels. The nobleman stood by and watched. Voltaire was outraged when none of his political friends came to his defense after the incident. He had thought that his stature as a poet made him the equal of the aristocrats he spent all his time with, but apparently he was still a second-class citizen. He began publicizing the incident and calling for justice, and he was thrown into the prison at the Bastille. He was released only on the condition that he leave France, and so he went to England. He spent most of the rest of his life in exile, and his writings built up support in Europe for what we now think of as basic human rights.

Voltaire said, "Let us read and let us dance — two amusements that will never do any harm to the world."

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Poem: "As You Like It, II. vii." by William Shakespeare , from As You Like It. Public Domain. (buy now)

As You Like It

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember'd not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.
Then heigh-ho! the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Thanksgiving Day, the day Americans express gratitude for their good fortune by eating one of the biggest meals of the year. As early as 1621, the Puritan colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts, set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest. On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed the 26th of that November the first national Thanksgiving Day under the Constitution. On October 3, 1863, in the wake of victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln decided to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November national Thanksgiving Day. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday of November, and in 1941, Congress made it official.

It's the birthday of the novelist George Eliot, (books by this author) born Mary Ann Evans in Warwickshire, England (1819), who spent the first 30 years of her life living in a small market town with her father. She took care of the house after her mother died, but her father encouraged her education and let her burn up thousands of candles reading late into the night. She read books by Montaigne, Shakespeare, Byron, Scott, Wordsworth, and many others and eventually learned to read Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Hebrew.

But when her father died, Eliot suddenly had to find a way to make a living. She was already a spinster by society standards, probably unable to find a husband, so she used her language skills to translate a book of German theology, and the man who published her translation was so impressed that he invited her to London and gave her an editing job at the Westminster Review. Within three years of her father's death, she had gone from a life of household chores and late-night reading to an editorship at one of the leading journals in London.

Most of the men Eliot met in London were amazed by her brilliance, but when she got too close, they often brushed her off, because she was not an attractive woman. Henry James once described her as, "[A] great horse-faced blue-stocking." But a man named George Henry Lewes fell in love with her mind. They never got married, because he could not by law divorce his first wife, but they lived together for the rest of their lives, and it was he who suggested she try writing fiction. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede (1859), was an overnight success, and everyone began to speculate about who this George Eliot was. Charles Dickens was one of the few people to guess that the author might be a woman. She eventually did reveal her identity, but she kept the pen name.

Her masterpiece was her second-to-last novel, Middlemarch (1871), which is a portrait of a market town like the one she grew up in, and tells the story of an idealistic young woman named Dorothea Brooke, who hopes to become a social reformer, and a doctor named Tertius Lydgate, who hopes to become a famous scientist. But both get caught in terrible marriages. After Middlemarch came out, thousands of women wrote letters to Eliot saying that she had described their lives, asking for her advice in their marriages and careers.

Virginia Woolf wrote, "Middlemarch is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Emily Dickinson wrote, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?"

It was about 12:30 p.m. on this day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. It was the only successful assassination of an American president carried out in the last hundred years, and the only presidential assassination ever caught on film. Almost every American alive at the time remembers where they were when they heard the news.

Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested 90 minutes after the murder. He'd been working at the Texas School Book Depository, which overlooked the plaza where Kennedy had been shot. Two days after his arrest, Oswald was being transferred to jail, in front of TV cameras, when a local nightclub owner named Jack Ruby pulled out a gun and shot him, perhaps the only time in American history that a man was murdered on live television.

Chief Justice Earl Warren presided over a presidential commission to investigate the assassination and whether there was some broader conspiracy. After 25,000 FBI interviews, 1,500 Secret Service interviews, and the testimony of 552 witnesses who appeared before the commission itself, the conclusion was that Oswald acted alone. But today, more than half of all Americans believe there was some larger conspiracy.

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Poem: "Sleeping" by Daniel Sisco, from A Breath On Stone: New & Selected Poems by Daniel Sisco. Self-published, 2006. Reprinted with permission.


Whether you think it's trampy or not,
when we are not awake,
we really are ALL sleeping together.
Sawing logs, snoozing,
getting a little shuteye,
some sacktime,
heading to slumberland,
doing the blanket drill,
the bunk habit,
having a siesta fiesta,
a pajama party
or just getting forty winks
and a good night's rest

We're all setting alarms, reading a bit,
warming our feet and spooning in,
stealing the covers, hogging all the pillows or
taking up the whole bed, grass mat,
hammock or our bit of dry earth.
Whether the satin sheets, fur or flannels
are on the futon, floor or igloo ice
whether we are naked, night gowned
or wearing what we wore all day.
We have been doing this a long time together, alot.

Terrorists and tyrants,
the embargoed, enemies and occupying forces
within a few blocks of each other
lay down everyday
not only their weapons but their bodies,
anger and ideologies.
They give up. They surrender,
not to overwhelming odds or power
but to being...tired.
They know they can't win against it.
Something much bigger says
"I don't want to hear another peep out of you.
Now tuck each other in and go to sleep!"

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the screenwriter and memoirist Joe Eszterhas, (books by this author) born in Hungary (1944). His home was destroyed by American bombers during World War II, so his family piled into their car and fled for the Austrian border, barely escaping machine gun fire. But they made it to a refugee camp and then immigrated to the United States, where Eszterhas became a journalist at Rolling Stone magazine, writing about drug dealers and murderers, and then broke into screenwriting with his script for the Sylvester Stallone movie F.I.S.T. (1978), about union organizers. By the 1990s, he had become the highest paid screenwriter in the world, writing scripts for thrillers like Jagged Edge (1985) and Basic Instinct (1992). He was once paid $4 million to write an outline for a screenplay, a job that took him about four hours to complete.

But after he tried to switch to a different talent agency, he claims that Hollywood executives threatened to have him killed, and he eventually quit Hollywood and moved to Ohio. In 2004, he came out with his memoir, Hollywood Animal, which mixes memories from his childhood and his surreal experiences in the movie industry. His book The Devil's Guide to Hollywood came out this year (2007).

It was on this day in 1903 that the opera singer Enrico Caruso (music by Enrico Caruso) made his American debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, appearing in ''Rigoletto.'' Caruso made it there from a childhood in the slums of Naples. His auto-mechanic father had tried to get him to work in a factory, but he'd run away from home at 16 and supported himself singing at weddings and funerals. For years, he'd worn the same suit — so many times that it began to turn green from mold, and he had to dye it black again.
Caruso began his career as an opera singer in 1894, at an amateur opera house, but he slowly built up a reputation throughout Europe and around the world.

By 1903, there was a lot of anticipation for his American debut, and most critics agreed that he did a good job. But over the course of that first opera season, Caruso began to relax and he sang better and better with each performance. By the end of the season, audiences were going into hysterics. After one of his last performances of the season, the audience members began yelling, stamping, and screaming his name. One woman jumped up on stage as Caruso came out for a bow. She tore a button from his coat and immediately burst into tears.

Less than three months after his Metropolitan debut, Caruso made some recordings for the Victor Company, and his voice had a quality that made it shine through all the static in those early recordings, which helped transform the phonograph from a curiosity into a household item — and Caruso the first vocal recording star.

It was on this day in 1889 that the Jukebox made its debut at the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. It consisted of an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph inside an oak cabinet with tubes sticking out, and by depositing a coin you could listen to the recording through the tube. In its first six months of service, the Nickel-in-the-Slot earned over $1,000. The word "jukebox" comes from the word "jook," which probably came to this country from West Africa, meaning disorderly or wicked.

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Poem: "The Nearness That Is All" by Samuel Hazo, from A Flight to Elsewhere. © Autumn House Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Nearness That Is All

Love's what Shakespeare never
   said by saying, "You have
   bereft me of all words, lady."
Love is the man who siphoned
   phlegm from his ill wife's throat
   three times a day for seven
      Love's what the Arabs
   mean when they bless those
   with children: "May God keep them
   for you."
         Or why a mother
   whispers to her suckling, "May you
   bury me."
            Love's how the ten-year
   widow speaks of her buried
   husband in the present tense.
Love lets the man with one leg
   and seven children envy no man
   living and none dead.
   leaves no one alone but, oh,
   lonely, lonelier, loneliest
   at midnight in another country.
Love is jealousy's mother
   and father.
            Love's how death
   creates a different nearness
   but kills nothing.
   makes lovers rise from each
   loving wanting more.
   says impossibility's possible
            Love saddens glad
   days for no bad reason.
Love gladdens sad days
   for no good reason.
   mocks equivalence.
                           Love is.

It's the birthday of the publisher and editor of The Little Review magazine, Margaret Anderson, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis (1886), who never fit in when she was growing up in the small town of Columbus, Indiana. She said, "I saw no reason why I should continue to live in Columbus, Indiana, and not breathe." So she moved to Chicago and founded a magazine called The Little Review, which she described as "A Magazine of the Arts, Making No Compromise with the Public Taste." She had a hard time getting financing, and eventually had to move in with her parents to save money, but she kept it going.

In 1918, the poet Ezra Pound was trying to get James Joyce's new novel, Ulysses, published in the U.S., but most publishers thought it was too obscene. Anderson accepted it as soon as she read the manuscript. She wrote to Pound, "We'll print it if it's the last effort of our lives." She serialized the novel over the course of three years, and later said, "The care we [took] to preserve Joyce's text intact. ... The addressing, wrapping, stamping, mailing; the excitement of anticipating the world's response to the literary masterpiece of our generation ... and then a notice from the Post Office: BURNED."

Three issues of the magazine were ultimately confiscated and burned. Anderson was charged with obscenity for publishing the book, and at the trial, the judge wouldn't let the offending material be read in her presence, because she was a woman, even though she had published it. She was convicted and had to pay a fine, and issues of The Little Review began to come out less and less frequently. The last issue came out in 1929.

Margaret Anderson said, "I believe in the unsubmissive, the unfaltering, the unassailable, the irresistible, the unbelievable — in other words, in an art of life."

It's the birthday of the novelist Laurence Sterne, (books by this author) born in Clonmel, Ireland (1713), who became a priest and supported himself and his wife by doing double duty in two different parishes, as well as substitute preaching at a third parish. He did all this preaching in spite the fact that privately he was agnostic. He knew he wanted to try writing fiction, but his friends kept telling him to put it off until he got promoted to higher office.

He finally decided he couldn't wait any more, and began to write his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760), a fictional autobiography in which the narrator is unable to tell his own story, because he's constantly sidetracked by various absurd digressions on all sorts of subjects. The book is also filled with black pages, excerpts of obscure theological debates, and a graphic representation of its own plotline.

Sterne participated in all the details of Tristram Shandy's marketing campaign, even specifying the dimensions of the book to make sure it could fit into a gentleman's coat pocket. His efforts paid off and the book made him famous. Sterne's work influenced many writers of the 20th century, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett. Author Italo Calvino said, "[Sterne] was the undoubted progenitor of all the avant-garde novels of our century."

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Poem: "If You Knew" by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

If You Knew

What if you knew you'd be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line's crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn't signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won't say Thank you, I don't remember
they're going to die.

A friend told me she'd been with her aunt.
They'd just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt's powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked a half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon's spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas, (books by this author) born in Flushing, New York (1913), who was an intern at Boston City Hospital when he began publishing poems in the Atlantic Monthly. He got $35 per poem, which was a better going rate than the $25 dollars he was getting from selling pints of his own blood. But he had to give up creative writing once he finished his internship, and he went on to work at a series of university hospitals, doing research on immunology, and finally becoming the president of Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York.

It was only after he had become one of the leading medical experts in the United States that a friend asked him if he'd like to write a column for The New England Journal of Medicine. He wouldn't get paid for his essays, but he couldn't pass up the chance to write on any topic he chose in a conversational style. He didn't have a lot of spare time, so he would choose an essay topic while driving home from work on Friday evenings and spend the following Saturday writing it. The essays touched on biology and space travel and classical music and termite colonies and medical conventions. He said that he was just writing them for fun, but when he his first collection, The Lives of a Cell, came out in 1974, it won the National Book Award and became a best-seller.

Lewis Thomas wrote, "We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth's creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still." And he said, "The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning."

It's the birthday of the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, (books by this author) born in Knoxville (1893), who was an English professor at Columbia University and a part-time drama critic for The Nation when he wrote a biography of Henry David Thoreau, and Thoreau's work got him interested in nature writing. So he took a sabbatical from his job and went off to spend a year in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona. He'd lived most of his adult life in New York City, but upon arriving in the desert he said, "[It] almost seemed I had known and loved it in some previous existence." He wrote a book about it called The Desert Year (1952), and then shocked his friends and colleagues at Columbia when he announced that he was moving to Arizona permanently.

He went on to write many more books about nature and the American West, including The Voice of the Desert (1955) and The Great Chain of Life (1956), and his work had a big influence on the environmentalist movement. Joseph Wood Krutch said, "Both the cockroach and the bird could get along very well without us, although the cockroach would miss us most."



  • “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
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