Peace on my little town, a speck in the safe,
        comforting, impersonal immensity of Kansas.
Benevolence like a gentle haze on its courthouse
        (the model of Greek pillars to me)
        on its quiet little bombshell of a library,
        on its continuous, hidden, efficient sewer system.

Sharp, amazed, steadfast regard on its more upright citizenry,
        my nosy, incredible, delicious neighbors.

Haunting invasion of a train whistle to my friends,
        moon-gilding, regular breaths of the old memories to them-
        the old whispers, old attempts, old beauties, ever new.

Peace on my little town, haze-blessed, sun-friended,
        dreaming sleepy days under the world-champion sky.

                                                    Lawrence, Kansas
                                                    c. Fall 1941

"Home Town" by William Stafford, from Another World Instead. © Graywolf Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler, (books by this author) born in Tonbridge, Kent, England (1858).

He studied at Oxford and taught Latin, Greek, and English at a boy's school in northwest England for 17 years, then resigned and moved to the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, built himself a one room cottage, and began living like a hermit. Though he spent all his time writing essays and produced enough to fill two book-length manuscripts, he could not succeed in getting them published. He then came up with the idea to write "a sort of English composition manual, from the negative point of view, for journalists & amateur writers." Collaborating with his brother on the work for Oxford University Press, he wrote The King's English (1906), which begins:

"Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid."

The first chapter, entitled "Vocabulary," lays out the following principles:

"Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance."

The book was a success and he was commissioned to produce The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which appeared in 1911. His biggest success, however, was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), a collection of common mistakes in English that Fowler organized into categories, such as "Battered Ornaments," "Love of the Long Word," "Sturdy Indefensibles," "Swapping Horses," and "Unequal Yokefellows."

T. S. Eliot said, "Every person who wishes to write ought to read A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ... for a quarter of an hour every night before going to bed."

It was on this day in 1926 that the first-ever Book of the Month Club selection was published by Viking Press: Lolly Willowes, by English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, about a spinster aunt who ventures away from her controlling family, negotiates with the Devil, and becomes a witch.

The Book of the Month Club was the creation of Harry Scherman (b. Feb. 1, 1887), a Jewish immigrant merchant's son who had dropped out of business school and law school and worked as a freelance journalist before joining a large advertising agency, where he specialized in writing copy for mail-order firms. When a candy company client of the ad agency wanted to sell more boxed candy, Scherman came up with the idea of adding leather-bound copies of classic Shakespeare plays to the boxes of candy and then advertising the fact. The candy company liked the idea, ordered 15,000 copies of different Shakespeare plays, and sold the candy boxes with books at drugstores.

The success of this led Scherman to resign from the ad agency and launch the "Little Leather Library Corporation" in 1916. It became a mail-order service that offered 10-cent, miniature-size reprints of classics (all past copyright so that they would not have to pay royalties), and it sold 40 million copies in its first five years.

Scherman decided that his company was running out of classics to reproduce, and he wanted to find a good way to market new books. So he started the Book of the Month Club, which would feature a prestigious selection committee whose reputation and esteemed taste would ensure the potential customer that the book of the month selected to be shipped was worth buying and reading, and this would help to reduce the cost of publicizing new titles. The first panel consisted of authors Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Christopher Morley, critic Henry Seidel Canby, journalist Heywood Broun, and newspaper publisher William Allen White. The judges met for lunch and brandy once a month to make their selection.

The club had initially offered the right to return the book if dissatisfied with the selection, and the first two selections "came back in droves," flooding the office facilities and creating logistical difficulties. So the club developed a negative option format in which it sent an announcement of the forthcoming book and gave the customer a form and short amount of time to decline having the book sent if they found it unappealing. If there was no response, then the book was shipped and the customer was billed.

The club's membership grew steadily from the beginning and even through the Great Depression. By 1966, the club had more than 1 million members. Its membership peaked in 1988 with 1.5 million people, but 15 years later had only 350,000 members, declining steadily through the 1990s due largely to the rise of online book-selling and the increasing development of large warehouse-style bookstores.

The Book of the Month Club has sent out more than 570 million books in the U.S. since it began in 1926.

This plot of ground
facing the waters of this inlet
is dedicated to the living presence of
Emily Dickinson Wellcome
who was born in England; married;
lost her husband and with
her five year old son
sailed for New York in a two-master;
was driven to the Azores;
ran adrift on Fire Island shoal,
met her second husband
in a Brooklyn boarding house,
went with him to Puerto Rico
bore three more children, lost
her second husband, lived hard
for eight years in St. Thomas,
Puerto Rico, San Domingo, followed
the oldest son to New York,
lost her daughter, lost her "baby,"
seized the two boys of
the oldest son by the second marriage
mothered them — they being
motherless — fought for them
against the other grandmother
and the aunts, brought them here
summer after summer, defended
herself here against thieves,
storms, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.

She grubbed this earth with her own hands,
domineered over this grass plot,
blackguarded her oldest son
into buying it, lived here fifteen years,
attained a final loneliness and —

If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.

"Dedication for a Plot of Ground" by William Carlos Williams from Collected Poems 1939-1962. © New Directions, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Douglas Adams, (books by this author) born in Cambridge, England (1952), best known for his five-book "trilogy" The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a series of comic science fiction novels that sold more than 14 million copies during his lifetime and inspired a cult-like following.

The idea for the first book came to Adams when he was 19 years old and backpacking through Europe. After a day of wandering through the Austrian countryside carrying the Hitch-hiker's Guide to Europe, Adams lay drunk in a field in Innsbruck with the book, ruing his inability to communicate with residents and gazing up at the stars. He said it occurred to him right then that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy.

At age 24, he felt frustrated by his lack of success as a writer and was on the verge of pursuing a different career when the BBC accepted his outline of the Hitchhiker story, about an Englishman named Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who hitch a ride from Earth on a passing starship before the planet is destroyed by a band of bureaucratic aliens. He wrote a 12-part radio series, which was broadcast for the first time in March 1978. A publisher approached Adams about turning the series into a novel, and the next year The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy appeared in print.

It was followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) and then Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), each popular and best-selling, and then a fourth book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984).

He was a notoriously unpunctual writer and said, "I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."

It's the birthday of poet, critic, and novelist D. J. Enright, (books by this author) born in Warwickshire, England (1920).

He earned a scholarship to study English at Cambridge and then embarked on a career in academia, teaching literature at universities in Egypt, England, Japan, Germany, Thailand, and Singapore, experiences that he later recounted in Memoirs of a Mendicant Professor (1969). He called himself a "Sunday writer," dependent on the day traditionally reserved for beach-going, and imagined it would be nice to be subsidized by a generous foundation to do nothing but write poetry for a year, but then thought, "Since I am one of those people who work under pressure or not at all, it seems better to have a full-time job, if only as an alibi."

He wrote three collections of poems by the time he was 40: The Laughing Hyena (1953), Bread Rather Than Blossoms (1956), and Some Men Are Brothers (1960). In his verse he generally rejected the modernist traditions, favoring lucid imagery and clear diction over the abstruse. He also featured working-class subjects like noodle-venders and shoeshine boys: "The more or less anonymous, to whom no human idiom can apply / Who neither passed away, or on, nor went before, nor varnished on a sigh" (from Bread Rather Than Blossoms, 1956).

In addition to writing more than a dozen books of poetry, he wrote six novels, many collections of essays, and a translation of Proust's A Remembrance of Things Past. He edited several anthologies, including The Oxford Book of Death (1983) — which he said he found to be an energizing rather than depressing undertaking — The Faber Book of Fevers and Frets (1989), and The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (1994).

It's the birthday of media entrepreneur (Keith) Rupert Murdoch, born in Melbourne, Australia (1931). He inherited two small Australian papers and gave them banner headlines of sex and scandal. Circulation soared. Over time, he has built an international media empire that includes radio and television stations, film and record companies, and book publishers around the world.

It was on this day in 1818 that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was published (books by this author). Shelley was only 19 years old when she wrote the novel, and the first edition was published anonymously with a preface written by her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelly. She revised the novel and published it under her name own name in 1823.

The story of Frankenstein's monster was first staged as a play in 1823 in London and was followed shortly thereafter by a musical burlesque. Today there are more than 80 films that carry "Frankenstein" in their title.

I. At The Store

Clumps of daffodils along the storefront
bend low this morning, late snow
pushing their bright heads down.
The flag snaps and tugs at the pole
beside the door.

The old freezer, full of Maine blueberries
and breaded scallops, mumbles along.
A box of fresh bananas on the floor,
luminous and exotic...
I take what I need from the narrow aisles.

Cousins arrive like themes and variations.
Ansel leans on the counter,
remembering other late spring snows,
the blue snow of '32:
Yes, it was, it was blue.
Forrest comes and goes quickly
with a length of stovepipe, telling
about the neighbors' chimney fire.

The store is a bandstand. All our voices
sound from it, making the same motley
American music Ives heard;
this piece starting quietly,
with the repeated clink of a flagpole
pulley in the doorway of a country store.

"At The Store" by Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise. © Graywolf Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of the writer and editor Dave Eggers, (books by this author) born in Boston (1970). He grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a city that was famous when he was growing up for having been the setting for the movie Ordinary People.

While he was in college at the University of Illinois, his mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Then, just after his mother went through severe stomach surgery, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, both of his parents were dead. Eggers was just 21 years old.

Of the experience of losing both of his parents so suddenly, Eggers later said, "On the one hand you are so completely bewildered that something so surreal and incomprehensible could happen. At the same time, suddenly the limitations or hesitations that you might have imposed on yourself fall away. There's a weird, optimistic recklessness that could easily be construed as nihilism but is really the opposite. You see that there is a beginning and an end and that you have only a certain amount of time to act. And you want to get started."

Eggers had to drop out of college to become the guardian of his 8-year-old younger brother. They moved to San Francisco, and Eggers used the insurance money from his parents' deaths to start his own magazine with some high school friends. They called their publication Might Magazine, because the liked the fact that the word "might" conveyed both strength and hesitation. The magazine developed a cult following for the way it satirized the magazine format. Each issue included an erroneous table of contents, irrelevant footnotes, and fictional error retractions. In one issue, they wrote, "On page 111, in our 'Religious News Round-up,' we reported that Jesus Christ was a deranged, filthy protohippy. In fact, Jesus Christ was the son of God. We regret the error." To raise money for the magazine, they sold the contents of their recycle bins to readers.

The magazine only lasted for 16 issues, but Eggers used the group of writers he got to know to start a new literary quarterly called Timothy McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Eggers wanted to experiment with graphic design and printing techniques, so he changed the format of the journal for every issue. One issue consisted of 14 individually bound pamphlets. Another issue included a music CD with a different piece of music composed specifically to accompany each piece in the journal.

All the while that he was starting up these magazines, Dave Eggers was staying up late at night trying to write a book about the death of his parents and the effect that it had on his life. But as he wrote it, he began to include all his own doubts about whether writing about his parents' deaths was an act of vanity. That book grew into his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which became a big best seller in 2000.

Eggers has gone on to write a collection of short stories, How We Are Hungry (2004), and two novels, You Shall Know Our Velocity (2002) and What Is the What (2006). He also founded a writing center for young people in San Francisco called 826 Valencia, which has grown into a national organization designed to help and encourage young people to write.

It's the birthday of Jack Kerouac, (books by this author) born Jean-Louis Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). He was part of the "Beat Generation," and he came up with the name. He said, "To me, it meant being poor, like sleeping in the subways ... and yet being illuminated and having illuminated ideas about apocalypse and all that." Later, Kerouac decided that "beat" stood for "beatific."

His parents were from French-speaking Quebec, and he did not start learning English until grade school. He skipped second and third grades, and as a 16-year-old senior, he ditched class in order to go alone to the public library and read what he wanted: Hugo, Goethe, Hemingway, William Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, history books, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and books of chess problems. He was a good football player and received a scholarship to Columbia University, but he broke his leg in the first season and didn't play anymore. He dropped out of Columbia, joined the Merchant Marine and then the Navy, and was given a psychiatric discharge after only two months, having been labeled as a "schizoid personality." The next fall, he went back to Columbia where he dropped out again almost immediately, but kept his apartment near campus and it became a gathering place for young intellectuals. During that time, he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Carl Solomon, Neal Cassady, and others who would help found the Beat Movement.

He spent the next seven years hitchhiking around the United States and Mexico, and in 1949 he and his friend Neal Cassady drove a Cadillac limousine from California to Chicago, going over 100 miles an hour on two-lane roads until the speedometer broke. In 1951, he sat at his kitchen table, taped sheets of Chinese art paper together to make a long roll, and wrote the story of Cassady and their trips. It had no paragraphs and very little punctuation. Allen Ginsberg called it "a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the road itself." It took him only three weeks to complete and became his novel On the Road (1957).

It's the birthday of playwright Edward Albee, (books by this author) born in 1928. He worked a series of odd jobs including selling music and books, working as an office assistant and a hotel barman, and then his favorite job: a Western Union messenger, about which he said, "It kept you out in the air and it was a nice job because it could never possibly become a career."

During this time, he frequently attended modern art exhibitions, concerts, and plays in New York City and, inspired by the emerging Theatre of the Absurd, he quit his job and in three weeks wrote The Zoo Story (1958), a one-act, two-man play about strangers who meet in Central Park. It was at first rejected by New York producers, premiered in Germany, and then staged the next year in New York's Greenwich Village.

He wrote a few more one act plays and then his first full-length play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), the work for which he is best known. The title is taken from graffiti he saw on a mirror at a New York bar. In its first season, the play's profanity shocked some audience members, and one critic called it an "exercise in depraved obscenity," but it was largely popular with critics and audiences, ran for 644 performances, and won many awards. A film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came out in 1966.

Every tan rolling meadow will turn into housing
Freeways are clogged all day
Academies packed with scholars writing papers
City people lean and dark
This land most real
As its western-tending golden slopes
And bird-entangled central valley swamps
Sea-lion, urchin coasts
Southerly salmon-probes
Into the aromatic almost-Mexican hills
Along a range of granite peaks
The names forgotten,
An eastward running river that ends out in desert
The chipping ground-squirrels in the tumbled blocks
The gloss of glacier ghost on a slab
Where we wake refreshed from ten hours sleep
After a long day's walking
Packing burdens to the snow
Wake to the same old world of no names,
No things, new as ever, rock and water,
Cool dawn birdcalls, high jet contrails.
A day or two or million, breathing
A few steps back from what goes down
In the current realm.
A kind of ice age, spreading, filling valleys
Shaving soils, paving fields, you can walk in it
Live in it, drive through it then
It melts away
For whatever sprouts
After the age of
Frozen hearts. Flesh-carved rock
And gusts on the summit,
Smoke from forest fires is white,
The haze above the distant valley like a dusk.
It's just one world, this spine of rock and streams
And snow, and the wash of gravels, silts
Sands, bunchgrasses, saltbrush, bee-fields,
Twenty million human people, downstream, here below.

"At Tower Peak" by Gary Snyder from No Nature. © New Directions, 1992. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of science fiction writer and Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, born in Tilden, Nebraska (1911).

He enrolled in George Washington University in 1930 to study civil engineering but was placed on academic probation because of poor grades, and he left after two semesters.

During World War II, Hubbard served in the Navy and was in command of a submarine chaser in the Pacific.

In 1950, he wrote Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which formed the basis of the Church of Scientology's teaching. The book explains that humans have "engrams," recordings of painful events experienced in the past, stored in their subconscious and that these are the basis of physical and emotional problems. In order to be cleared of these engrams and unwanted spiritual conditions, a person takes part in an "auditing" session, where a counselor uses an Electropsychometer, or E-Meter, to measure the mental state of a person, helping to locate areas of spiritual distress so they can be addressed and handled in a session.

The book became a best seller and sold 150,000 copies within a year of publication. Groups formed all over the country to apply Dianetics techniques. Hubbard said, "The creation of Dianetics is a milestone for man comparable to his discovery of fire and superior to his inventions of the wheel and the arch."

It's the birthday of journalist Janet Flanner, (books by this author) born in Indianapolis (1892).

She worked for The Indianapolis Star as a film critic, one of the first in the nation. She was particularly interested in crime and moved to Pennsylvania to work at a girl's reformatory. In 1922, she took a trip to Europe and ended up settling in Paris. From there, she began writing long letters to her friends in America, including to Jane Grant, with whom she had helped found the Lucy Stone League, an organization that fought to allow women to keep and use legally their maiden name after marriage. Grant was the wife of Harold Ross, who was starting a new magazine, and she asked if Flanner would write a regular letter from Paris for the magazine.

Her first "Letter from Paris" appeared in The New Yorker in September of 1925, and she continued writing it for 50 years. It became a biweekly feature of the magazine in which she wrote about how public political news affected private lives. Without telling her, Ross gave Flanner the penname Genet, which he thought was the French name for Janet, but is actually the French word for female donkey.

Adolescence came the night
we were walking back from the playground
after all the basketball we could fit in
before dark, and a loud car pulled up
beside us, four girls, a red Mustang,
the Angels, loud, on the radio,
but they didn't need directions, these girls,
these angels, they knew
where they were going. What they didn't know
was that we were thirteen, not even
in high school — that's what they asked us,
What school ya go to? but something told us
to hedge the question, the Angels, loud
girls, too many girl groups, we made fun of them,
Ronettes, Crystals, Shirelles, Shangra-las —
but not the Angels. The Angels were okay
for some reason. That should have been a hint.
Things were changing; some things were
already different: a red Mustang and four girls,
the Angels singing, and the lights over the court
had not come on that night, the night
girls pulled up beside us, four guys
and a basketball, a radio loud, girls
singing, and we hedged questions
until they pulled away laughing, loud,
four girls, the red Mustang, amber lights
winking in the distance, music, girl groups,
four, loud, and that last night, Thank you
and goodnight, Thank you and goodnight,

of basketball, no lights, the Angels, the Angels.

"The Angels" by Louis McKee from Near Occasions of Sin. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of Albert Einstein, born in Ulm, Germany (1879).

Einstein didn't like school because of its rote teaching and discipline style, and he was not a good student except in math.

Einstein's father wanted him to get a technical job in order to help support the family, so he took the entrance exam for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He was unprepared and failed the exam, except for the math section, on which he scored extremely high. The principal of the school was impressed by Einstein's aptitude for math and sent him to finish high school at a place just outside of Zurich. A year later, he enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute.

After graduating, he went to work for the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, where his job was to evaluate patent applications for electromagnetic devices and determine whether the inventions described would actually work. The job wasn't particularly demanding and at night he would come home and pursue scientific investigations and theories. In 1905, he wrote a paper on the Special Theory of Relativity, which is that if the speed of light is constant and if all natural laws are the same in every frame of reference, then both time and motion are relative to the observer.

That same year, he published three more papers, each of which was just as revolutionary as the first, including the paper that included his most famous equation: E = mc2. E is energy, m is mass, and c stands for the velocity of light.

Einstein received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1921, and he donated all the prize money to charity.

It's the birthday of novelist John Wain, (books by this author) born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England (1925). His first novel, Hurry on Down (1953), established him as one of Britain's "Angry Young Men" of the 1950s, known as radicals who bitterly opposed the British establishment and the conservative elements in the society at the time.

It's the birthday of the humorist Max Shulman, (books by this author) born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1919). He wrote several books, including Anyone Got a Match? (1964) and Potatoes Are Cheaper (1971). He grew up during the Great Depression, and he said, "I turned early to humor as my branch of writing ... [because] life was bitter and I was not."

It's the birthday of Sylvia Beach, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She founded an English-language bookstore and lending library on the Left Bank of Paris called Shakespeare & Company (1919). It became a central feature of the Parisian literary scene of the 1920s and "the unofficial living room" of the expatriate artists there. Writers used it as a meeting place, a post office, and a place for guidance with their writing.

Beach also published books, including the first edition of James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, while it was still banned in America.

It's the birthday of the playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote, (books by this author) born in Wharton, Texas (1916). He's best known for writing the screenplays for movies such as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983). He also won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play The Young Man from Atlanta (1995).

Tonight I lingered over your name,
the delicate assembly of vowels
a voice inside my head.
You were sleeping when I arrived.
I stood by your bed
and watched the sheets rise gently.
I knew what slant of light
would make you turn over.
It was then I felt
the highways slide out of my hands.
I remembered the old men
in the west side café,
dealing dominoes like magical charms.
It was then I knew,
like a woman looking backward,
I could not leave you,
or find anyone I loved more.

"San Antonio" by Naomi Shihab Nye from Is this Forever, or What? Poems and Paintings from Texas. © Harper Collins Publishers, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the infamous Ides of March. Two thousand fifty-two years ago on this day, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by senators who called themselves the Liberatores (Liberators) and claimed they were preserving the integrity of the Roman system. Although Caesar ostensibly refused to be named king, he had no qualms about stamping his face on coins (a spot previously reserved for gods), and he happily assumed the title "dictator for life" in February of 44 B.C.E., just a month before his assassination. The most famous of the Liberators is Marcus Brutus, a man personally connected to Caesar. Brutus's mother, Servilia, was one of Caesar's lovers, and Caesar singled Brutus out as a young man of promise and gave him a government position. It's not certain why Brutus conspired to kill Caesar, but the young man did come from a family of anti-authoritarians — his ancestor Junius Brutus overthrew the last king of Rome in 509 B.C.E.

Today is the birthday of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, born in the Waxhaw settlement on the border of North and South Carolina in 1767. He was born to Scotch-Irish parents; his father died in a logging accident and his mother raised three sons by herself until she died when Andrew was 14. Jackson had a fiery temper and a fierce sense of honor, which led to frequent brawls; he killed a man in a duel who insulted his wife.

Jackson ran for president in 1824 and decisively won the popular vote, but since he didn't have the electorate majority, the House of Representatives was allowed to choose and opted for the refined John Quincy Adams over the backwoods Jackson. Jackson spent the next four years portraying himself as the peoples' candidate and appealing to working-class voters, a successful strategy that won him the 1828 and 1832 elections and has been used ever since by presidential hopefuls. The 1828 election split the Democratic-Republican party in two; Adams emerged as leader of the Republican party, and Jackson of the Democratic-Republican Party.

Jackson was the first president who did not come from the aristocracy and he is remembered as a populist and a war hero.

It's is the birthday of the playwright and folklorist Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, (books by this author) born in Galway, Ireland (1852). Lady Gregory is best remembered as an instrumental figure in the Irish Literary Revival. At age 28, Isabella Augusta married the 63-year-old widower Sir William Henry Gregory; the couple's estate at Coole Park became a haven for Irish Revival writers, including W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and Sean O'Casey. Yeats actually wrote several poems set at the estate, including "The Wild Swans at Coole."

Lady Gregory cofounded the Irish Literary Theatre with Yeats in 1899, which became the Abbey Theater Company. Encouraged by Yeats, Lady Gregory collected regional folklore and published numerous translations and retellings of local mythology, including Poets and Dreamers (1903) and God and Fighting Men (1904). Lady Gregory's first play was Twenty Five (1904); in the next eight years she wrote 19 original plays and seven works of translation, all for the Abbey, including The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1906), The Image (1909), and MacDonough's Wife (1912).

Today is the birthday of novelist and poet Ben Okri, (books by this author) born in Minna, Nigeria, in 1959. His family lived in London for a while, but returned to Nigeria when he was nine. The protagonists of his first two novels — Flowers and Shadows (1980) and The Landscapes Within (1981) — are young Nigerian men navigating political and personal turmoil. Okri went on to win a Booker prize for The Famished Road, the first in a trilogy of novels chronicling the life of a spirit child in a Nigerian village. Other books in the trilogy are Songs of Enchantment (1993) and Infinite Riches (1998).

Okri resists labels, not just for himself but for literature in general: "Literature doesn't have a country. Shakespeare is an African writer.... The characters of Turgenev are ghetto dwellers. Dickens' characters are Nigerians. ...Literature may come from a specific place but it always lives in its own unique kingdom."

The small birds leave cuneiform
messages on the snow: I have
been here, I am hungry, I
must eat. Where I dropped
seeds they scrape down
to pine needles and frozen sand.

Sometimes when snow flickers
past the windows, muffles trees
and bushes, buries the path,
the jays come knocking with their beaks
on my bedroom window:
to them I am made of seeds.

To the cats I am mother and lover,
lap and toy, cook and cleaner.
To the coyotes I am chaser and shouter.
To the crows, watcher, protector.
To the possums, the foxes, the skunks,
a shadow passing, a moment's wind.

I was bad watchful mommy to one man.
To another I was forgiving sister
whose hand poured out honey and aloe;
to that woman I was a gale whose lashing
waves threatened her foundation; to this
one, an oak to her flowering vine.

I have worn the faces, the masks
of hieroglyphs, gods and demons,
bat-faced ghosts, sibyls and thieves,
lover, loser, red rose and ragweed,
these are the tracks I have left
on the white crust of time.

"Tracks" by Marge Piercy from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published his seminal novel The Scarlet Letter (books by this author).

There is considerable debate as to whether the novel's protagonist, Hester Prynne, is based on an actual historical figure, but we know that Hawthorne was aware of the 1694 law enacted in Salem that mandated that a woman convicted of adultery must wear the letter "A" on her clothing. One reason for its incredible popularity is that The Scarlet Letter was one of the first American books to be mass-produced; most publishers hand-bound books and sold them in small batches. The novel's first printing of 2,500 copies sold out in 10 days.

It's the birthday of novelist Alice Hoffman, (books by this author) born in New York City (1952). She attended Adelphi University and Stanford University, where she published a short story in the magazine Fiction. The editor asked if she had written a novel; she lied and said she had, and then immediately felt guilty enough to write one. This became her first novel, Property Of (1973), which she wrote as a 21-year-old. Hoffman has published 17 more novels, including Practical Magic (1995), Here on Earth (1997), and her latest, The Third Angel (2008).

It's the birthday of novelist David Liss, (books by this author) born in Englewood, New Jersey (1966). Liss abandoned a dissertation on 18th-century British literature and culture in order to finish writing his first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper, a story set in none other than 18th-century Britain. Along with his next two novels, The Coffee Trader (2003) and A Spectacle of Corruption (2004), Liss has been credited with creating a new genre, the "historical financial thriller." His latest novel, The Ethical Assassin (2006), follows an itinerant encyclopedia salesman in Florida, a position Liss himself once held.

Today is the birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, born in Port Conway, Virginia (1751). Madison is considered the "Father of the Constitution," although he dismissed such a title, claiming that the document was "the work of many heads and many hands." Madison was elected president in 1808. He led the United States into the War of 1812, which was an unpopular decision; things got even worse for the president when the British burned down the Capitol and White House in 1814. However, a series of victories and then a peace treaty in 1815 convinced Americans that maybe the war had been successful after all, and Madison enjoyed immense popularity for his last two years in office.

Today is the birthday of poet and essayist Sully Prudhomme, (books by this author) born in Paris in 1839, who wrote under the somewhat lengthier penname René-François-Armand Prudhomme.

Prudhomme won the first Nobel Prize in literature in 1901 in a controversial decision. The relatively minor writer was selected above Émile Zola (who was nominated but not chosen) and Leo Tolstoy (who wasn't even nominated).

His books of poetry include Stances et poèmes (1865), La Justice (1878), and Le Bonheur (Happiness, 1888).



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