Mar. 2, 2005


by William Greenway

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Poem: "Theater" by William Greenway, from Fishing at the End of the World. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission.


Like the neighborhood kind
you went to as a kid, full
of yellow light and red
velvet curtains and everybody
there, friends, bullies throwing
popcorn, somebody with red hair.
The roof is leak-stained like the bloody
footprints of the beast from 20,000 fathoms,
there's a yo-yo demonstration by
a greasy man in a sequined suit,
the girl you love is there somewhere
but you can't find her, or if you do
she's with some jerk with muscles.
And the show won't start. There's whistling
and stomping, paper airplanes and 3-D
glasses until you don't even care
anymore because your head is tired,
a stone atop a tendril, and you just
want to sleep, when, sure enough,
the curtain finally rises,
darkness falls,
and here it comes.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the publisher Max Schuster, born in Kalusz, Austria (1897). He was working as the editor of a trade magazine when he met a man named Richard L. Simon, who sold pianos for a living. The two shared the same office building, and they began having lunch together everyday. They were both interested in the publishing business, and decided to start a publishing house of their own.

They had all kinds of plans and ideas for their new publishing venture, but no authors to publish. One day, Simon overheard his aunt say that she wished there were a collection of crossword puzzles she could give to a sick friend. At the time, crossword puzzles were a new invention, printed only in newspapers. Simon and Schuster decided to try printing a collection of crossword puzzles for their first book. It sold half a million copies in less than a year. It helped launch a worldwide crossword puzzle craze and put Simon and Schuster on the publishing map.

Simon and Schuster went on to become one of the most successful publishing houses in America. Instead of publishing books that authors had already written, they usually came up with the ideas themselves and assigned them to authors. They helped invent the self-help genre by publishing Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People (1938), and they went on to publish books about how to dance, how to buy real estate, how to invest, do your taxes, play checkers, train a dog, keep house, and succeed in business.

It's the birthday of the novelist John Irving, born in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). His first successful novel was The World According to Garp (1978). He's written many more novels since then, including The Cider House Rules (1978) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). In addition to writing books, he also wrestled professionally until he was 34 years old, and he was voted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992. His next book, Until I Find You, will come out this summer.

It's the birthday of the children's book author who wrote under the name Dr. Seuss, born Theodor Geisel, in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). He was the son of German immigrants. His mother was an accomplished high diver, and his father was a target shooter who held the world record for marksmanship at 200 yards.

He studied literature, and planned on becoming an English professor. But a woman in one of his classes noticed the drawings he doodled in the margin of his notebook during a lecture on Milton, and she told him he should become a cartoonist. He took her advice and also decided to marry her.

Seuss made a living selling cartoons to magazines, and he also drew cartoons for advertisements. The Standard Oil Company hired him to create monsters that live in the car, and he created the Moto-Raspus, the Moto-Munchus, and the Karbo-nockus. He published his first book for children And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street in 1937.

He went on to publish a series of fairly successful books for older children and then, in 1955, an educational specialist asked him if he would write a book to help children learn how to read. Seuss was given a list of 300 words that most first graders know, and he had to write the book using only those words. Seuss wasn't sure he could do it, but as he looked over the list, two words jumped out at him: "cat" and "hat."

Seuss spent the next nine months writing what would become The Cat in the Hat (1957). That book is 1,702 words long, but it uses only 220 different words. Parents and teachers immediately began using it to teach children to read, and within the first year of its publication it was selling 12,000 copies a month.

A few years later, Seuss's publisher bet him $50 that he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won the bet with his book Green Eggs and Ham (1960), which uses exactly 50 different words, and only one of those words has more than one syllable: the word "anywhere." It became the forth best-selling children's hardcover book of all time.

It's the birthday of Tom Wolfe, born in Richmond, Virginia (1931). As a young boy, he would say a prayer every night before he went to bed, thanking God that he was an American. He's been obsessed with America ever since. He majored in American Studies at Yale, but he thought he might learn more about America by getting a job as a reporter, so that's what he did.

He went on to write a series of best-selling books of non-fiction about many aspects of American life: stock car racing, the drug culture, architecture, surfing, and the space program. He came to believe that the novel was dead as an art form and that the only way to say the really important things about American life was through non-fiction.

But then, in the 1980's, he decided to try writing a novel. He had been doing research on the criminal justice system in New York City, and he got the idea for a story about a court case that could involve as many different aspects of New York society as possible: the rich, the poor, the lawyers, the media, the activists, the politicians, and all the bystanders.

He spent months going to trials at the Manhattan Criminal Court Building and the Bronx County Courthouse, and he took notes on all the stories he heard, the clothes people wore, the way everyone talked, and whatever else he could absorb, and he put it all in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, which became a huge best-seller in 1987.

His most recent book I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004) is about the party rituals and sex lives of contemporary college students. For his research, Wolfe went to 12 different universities, and attended dozens of frat parties. He said, "I was so old, and I always wore a necktie—I must have seemed somewhat odd to them." He made sure to use all the most current slang and pop culture references. He asked his own children, both recent college graduates, to check the book over for mistakes. The book got mixed reviews from most major newspapers and magazines, but it's gotten better reviews from college newspapers, most of which admit that it's pretty accurate.

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