Feb. 23, 2005


by William Baer

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Poem: "Job" by William Baer, from Borges and Other Sonnets. © Truman State University Press. Reprinted with permission.


(Job 28:28)

Yes: wisdom begins with fear of the Lord,
which comprehends the power that made the seas,
the earth, the shimmering dawn, the unexplored
unfathomed skies, the moon, and the Pleiades.
Which also know Who comes to judge our shoddy
little failing lives, knowing full well,
we need not fear the one who kills the body,
but only He who condemns the soul to hell.
Which also knows it magnifies the Lord,
defying the demon, being the only release,
oddly enough, from fear, being its own reward,
which is also wise, is faith, is hope, is peace,
is tender mercy, over and over again,
until, at last, is love, is love. Amen.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the journalist and novelist William Shirer, born in Chicago (1904). He graduated from college in the spring of 1925, and he had a steady job waiting for him the following autumn, so he decided to spend his last summer before becoming a real adult traveling in Paris. He borrowed $200 from his father, which he figured would last about two months, and took off to the bohemian capital of the world.

Once he got there, he found that he loved European life. He became friends with writers and artists and began to think that he didn't want to go home. He tried to get a job with one of the local newspapers, but nobody would take him. So at the end of two months, he went to his own going away party, assuming he'd be leaving the following morning for America. That following morning, he got a job offer from the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.

He had originally hoped to become a novelist, but he later wrote, "History now seemed more interesting to me, especially contemporary history... Vaguely the idea began to take root that there might be a great deal of history to write about from here for a daily newspaper back home." He went on to become one of the foremost American foreign correspondents to cover the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of World War II.

His first book was Berlin Diary (1941), which he had to smuggle out of Germany when he learned that the Gestapo was planning to arrest him for espionage. It included all kinds of daily details about the Nazi governmental figures he had covered. Of the way Hitler walked, Shirer wrote, "Very ladylike. Dainty little steps."

After the war, Shirer was labeled a communist sympathizer, and couldn't find work as a journalist. In desperation to make a living, he began writing the book that became The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1961). It was the first historical overview of Nazi Germany for general readers, and it was published at a time when Americans who had lived through the war were ready to look back on what had happened. It became one of the best-selling non-fiction books of the decade.

He went on to write many more books, including The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (1984) his memoir of covering the rise the Nazi party in Europe.

William Shirer said, "I have never been bored for a minute in my life."

It's the birthday of the novelist who writes under the name John Sandford, born John Camp in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (1944). He has written many best-selling detective novels, including Rules of Prey (1989) Shadow Prey (1990) and Eyes of Prey (1991).

He started out as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald and then moved to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won a Pulitzer for a series of articles about a family farm. But even after winning a Pulitzer, he worried about making enough money to put his kids through college, so he decided to try writing detective novels. His first two books didn't do very well, but then he invented the detective Lucas Davenport for his third novel Rules of Prey (1989), and it became a best-seller.

Sanford had once written a series of articles about the prisoners in a local Minnesota prison, and he drew on that experience to create the villains for his novels. Most of his books are set in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and he believes Minnesota breeds a particular kind of criminal. He once said, "When people kill up here, it's not the chaotic street crime [they have] in Miami. We have these elaborate, cold-blooded murders that incubate in the winters. My first week in St. Paul, some guy killed his wife and fed her body down the garbage disposal. That's Minnesotan."

He's always been an incredibly prolific writer. When he was a journalist he would compete with fellow reporters to see who has produced the most copy. Since becoming a novelist, he has published at least one book every year since 1989.

When asked about his ability to write so many novels so quickly, John Sandford said, "Music people have music running through their heads. Journalists have words going through their heads. It's almost like my head is tuned into some sort of news radio. The stories that you write are things that you pull out of the air, and I don't know how to stop it. Sometimes, when I sleep, there's so much going on that I just lie there and twitch."

His next novel, Broken Prey, will come out this May.

John Sandford said, "What writers do is create the skeleton of a dream, which is dreamt in full by the readers."

It's the birthday of one of the greatest diarists in the English language, Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633). He managed to work his way up from poverty when it was almost impossible to do so in England. His parents were a tailor and a washerwoman, but he had an upper-class cousin who helped him get into good schools and got him government jobs.

His constant fear of losing his position made him an extremely hard worker, and he eventually worked his way up to the top of society. He later wrote, "For myself, chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do among so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him."

Pepys began his diary in 1659, and he would keep it for almost 10 years. No one knows what inspired him to start it, but he was a great collector of ship models, scientific instruments, portraits, ballads, money, and women, and some critics see his diary as an attempt to collect his whole experience of the world.

It wasn't uncommon at the time for well-educated men to keep a journal, but most of these men wrote dry descriptions of their travels, politics and public affairs. As far as we know, Pepys was the first Englishman to fill his diary with descriptions of his most personal and ordinary experiences: his daily aches and pains, what he liked to eat, going to the bathroom, having sex with his wife, and having affairs, graphic details which novelists wouldn't start incorporating into their work for more than two hundred years.

Pepys was brutally honest about himself, and often wrote about his failed attempts to seduce servant girls and bar maids. In August 1667, he wrote, "[At church I] stood by a pretty modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me, and at last I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again; which seeing, I did forbear."

He also wrote about the historical events of his time, including the Great Fire in 1666, and he took note of even the smallest details of that fire. He wrote, "Among other things, the poor pigeons I perceive were loath to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were some of them burned, their wings, and fell down."

Pepys also wrote extensively about King Charles II, whom he worked for, and he was fascinated by the fact that the king was just an ordinary person. About a trip he took on a boat with the king, Pepys wrote, "I went... with a dog that the King loved, which [defecated] in the boat, which made us laugh and me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are." Once, after meeting the king and his brother, Pepys wrote, "God forgive me, though I adore them with all the duty possible, yet the more a man considers and observes them, the less he finds of difference between them and other men."

After going to a wedding, he once wrote, "It was strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition."

Pepys wrote the diary in shorthand and kept it secret during his lifetime, but near the end of his life he bound it in six volumes and gave it to a College in Cambridge. The first edition of it was published in 1825, and it kept being republished again and again, with more and more of the explicit entries included. The complete diary was finally published in 1970.

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