Feb. 23, 2008

Crossing Kansas by Train

by Donald Justice

The telephone poles
have been holding their
arms out
a long time now
to birds
that will not
settle there
but pass with
strange cawings
westward to
where dark trees
gather about
a waterhole. This
is Kansas. The
mountains start here
just behind
the closed eyes
of a farmer's
sons asleep
in their workclothes.

"Crossing Kansas by Train" by Donald Justice from Night Light. © Wesleyan University Press, 1963. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In Mainz, Germany, on this day in 1455 began the mass printing of the Gutenberg Bible, the first manuscript in Europe to be printed by movable type. About 180 copies were produced, the Bible contained more than 1,280 pages, and on each page the text was laid out in two 42-line columns.

Up until that time, manuscripts were usually copied by scribes, and a handwritten Bible could take one scribe more than a year to prepare. Sometimes woodblock printing was used, but it was also an expensive and time-consuming process.

The movable type printing press featured individual blocks with a single character that could be rearranged endlessly. Passages of text would be covered in ink and used to make repeated impressions on paper. The printing press that Johann Gutenberg built was based on the design of presses for wine and paper.

It's estimated that more books were produced in the 50 years after the movable type printing press was built than in the 1,000 years before it. Gutenberg's invention is credited with making the Renaissance possible: it allowed classical Greek and Latin texts to be distributed widely. It also made books affordable to lower classes.

It's the birthday of the diarist Samuel Pepys, born in London (1633), the son of a tailor and maid. He had a cousin, the Earl of Sandwich, who got him good government jobs and when he was 26 years old, he made a New Year's resolution to keep an account of the events in his life. On January 1, 1660, he made his first diary entry:

This morning (we living lately in the garret,) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts. Went to Mr. Gunning's chapel at Exeter House, where he made a very good sermon. ... Dined at home in the garret, where my wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand. ... I staid at home all the afternoon, looking over my accounts; then went with my wife to my father's ...

Alongside the trivial, day-by-day details that he recorded, he also wrote about the coronation of Charles II in 1660, the Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of 1666.

There was only one London newspaper at his time, and it was controlled by the government, so much of what we know about this period in history has been taken from Pepys's diary. He loved to go to plays and concerts, and he wrote about the performances that he attended.

Once, after attending a wedding, he mused in his diary, "Strange, to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and wife gazing and smiling at them."

He wrote about going to the bathroom, having sex with his wife, and his extramarital affairs — and for content that was sexual in nature, he often replaced English words with a mixture of shorthand, Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, German, and his own secret code. It took three years for a scholar to transcribe the diaries into plain English.

Pepys quit writing the diary in 1669 — almost 10 years after starting it — because his eyesight was failing and he feared going blind.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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