Nov. 12, 2006


by Reid Bush

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Poem: "Unforeseen" by Reid Bush, from What You Know. © Larkspur Press. Reprinted with permission.


Before we buried him, no one thought
to trace around his hand.

It would have been an easy thing to do
if you could stand his fingers cold, stiff:
just a piece of paper underneath
and pen or pencil.

I don't think there's anybody
could half imagine in a million years
how much since he died we've argued
over just how big his hands were.

It's hard to know when you need to
what it is you're going to want.

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). He served in the Vietnam War and came back to write the short story "The Death of Major Great" (1974), about a group of soldiers who kill their commanding officer. The story was published in The Atlantic Monthly and launched his career as a writer. But instead of continuing to write stories, he decided that the best use of his talent would be to describe the real world in nonfiction. After a book about a murder trial that he considered a failure, he focused his attention on the growing industry of computers.

He spent eight months living in the basement of Data General Corporation, watching the engineers at work on a new microcomputer, which they said would revolutionize the world. His book The Soul of a New Machine was published in 1981. It was one of the first non-technical books about the computer industry, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.

Kidder went on to write many more books, including House (1985), about the world of carpenters and house building, and Among Schoolchildren (1989), about the education industry.

It's the birthday of the founder of Reader's Digest, DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889). His father was a professor of Greek and Old English at Macalester College, but Wallace rebelled against his father's example and fell in love with business. As a young man, he was always trying to make a buck, raising chickens, selling vegetables from his garden, and operating an electrical repair service.

After college, he worked for a publishing house that specialized in agricultural textbooks. While working there, he learned that the federal government had all kinds of free informational pamphlets that were available to farmers, but most farmers didn't even know these pamphlets existed. So he decided to publish and sell a condensed collection of the free pamphlets to farmers, called Getting the Most out of Farming. It was a huge success, and Wallace decided that making information easily available was the secret to the publishing industry.

He was still trying to figure out what to do next when World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the army. He was seriously wounded in 1918. During his recovery, he read hundreds of magazines, and he suddenly realized that a pocket-sized magazine full of condensed general-interest articles from other magazines could be a big hit. He compiled a sample issue of the first Reader's Digest and spent years trying to sell the idea to publishers in New York, but they all turned him down. He would have given up, but he was fired from his job and figured he didn't have anything to lose.

The first issue came out in February 1922. People didn't think it would last, because it was just a reprint journal, but Wallace had a talent for finding those stories that appealed to the widest number of people. By the end of the decade, Reader's Digest was one of the most profitable magazines in the country, and it is now one of the most widely read magazines in the world.

It's the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes, born in Cherbourg, France (1915). He was one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches.

It was on this day in 1969 that the reporter Seymour Hersh (books by this author) broke the story of the My Lai massacre, the most notorious war crime ever committed by American soldiers. One witness to the incident was helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson. Then he watched as an American shot a wounded woman lying defenseless on the ground. He saw several elderly adults and children running for shelter, chased by Americans. He was the first person to report the incident to his superiors, and he assumed that an investigation would follow. But nothing happened. It was another soldier, named Ron Ridenhour, who heard about the incident and vowed to make it public. He interviewed as many men who'd been there that day as he could, and when he got back to the United States he wrote a description of the massacre and sent it to 30 people, including his congressman.

The Pentagon initiated an investigation and it charged Lieutenant William Calley with the murder of unknown civilians. But there was no media coverage until freelance reporter Seymour Hersh heard about the incident from a lawyer who had been working with military deserters. He interviewed as many people involved as he could find, and wrote the first article about the incident. But no major magazine would publish it.

So Hersh turned to a tiny news syndicate called the Dispatch News Service, which offered the article to 50 newspapers around the United States and Europe for the price of $100. Thirty-six of the newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle, chose to run the article on this day in 1969. Hersh went on to write a total of five articles about the massacre and its aftermath, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage.

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